Quebec public health warns of ‘difficult December’ as respiratory viruses spread

Quebec public health director Dr. Luc Boileau responds to a question during a news conference in Montreal, Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022. Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

Quebec public health director Dr. Luc Boileau warned of a difficult month ahead amid an onslaught of respiratory viruses circulating in the province.

Boileau made the comments during a press conference on Monday, where he noted that while it’s normal to see a rise in respiratory illnesses in December, the flu season seems to have started a few weeks early this year, with more people getting sick.

This graph shows the evolution of RSV and influenza in 2022, compared to previous years. Monday, Dec. 5, 2022. Quebec public health handout

Of the many viruses circulating three are of particular concern, including the novel coronavirus, influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

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Boileau explained the worry is not only linked to the number of people infected but the impact of those illnesses on the most vulnerable.

RSV is a virus that causes complications mostly in young children, Boileau said, with many kids under five requiring hospitalization in pediatric wards and in intensive care units.

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While the latest data shows that the number of RSV cases has already peaked, Boileau warned that has yet to translate into a drop in the number of hospitalizations.

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Pediatric emergency wards in the province and across the country have been overwhelmed with patients in recent weeks, leading to overcrowding and long wait times for care.

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As for influenza and COVID, transmission is on the rise with variants of concern making up the majority of cases in Quebec.

It’s unclear when the number of infections will peak but Boileau indicated the next few weeks would be difficult.

“Even if the great majority of people will have symptoms that aren’t too serious, for many they will be minor, for others who are vulnerable it’s going to be a different story,” Boileau said. “It could lead to complications requiring advanced medical care or intensive care.”

In light of the rising cases and the start of the holiday season, Boileau reminded people of the efficacy of vaccines in fighting COVID-19 and influenza.

He said those who are more vulnerable – including people with chronic conditions, those over 60 years of age, parents of young children, pregnant women and health-care workers – should really consider getting their shots if they haven’t already done so.

He recommended wearing masks in crowded public spaces and said anyone showing symptoms of a respiratory illness or a fever should stay home.

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“We understand people want to party … but we want to insist that in crowded public spaces the use of the mask is a good way to protect yourself and limit the spread of viruses,” Boileau said.

He clarified that while masks would not be mandated in schools it is strongly recommended for children who have symptoms or are going back to school after a fever.

In addition to mask-wearing, Boileau said handwashing, coughing into the arm and limiting contacts when symptomatic are little things people can do to help curb the spread of respiratory viruses.

“All those small gestures added together have a big impact on public health.”

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— with files from The Canadian Press

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