Many health experts feared that a fall wave of COVID-19 would not only be worse than the first wave in the spring, but that it would come just as seasonal flu infections started to spread, making it impossible for hospitals to keep up. COVID-19 is proving to be worse this fall, with more than 1,400 people in hospital, about one-fifth of them in critical care. The flu, however, is not.
In the first week of November, not one province or territory reported a single patient hospitalized with the flu, compared with 60 during the same week a year ago. In 2019, provinces reported 147 lab-confirmed cases of flu the first week of November. This year, they reported four.
‘Exceptionally low levels’
This comes despite testing more than twice as many people for flu than usual — almost 10,000 tests were done in the first week of November, compared to a six-year average of about 4,500. “The percentage of laboratory tests positive for influenza has remained at exceptionally low levels,” says the Public Health Agency of Canada’s weekly flu watch report.
Signs from the Southern Hemisphere, which gets hit with flu season first, were reason to hope the “twindemic” wasn’t going to happen here. New Zealand said its flu infections were down 99.8 per cent, and in Australia, lab-confirmed cases of flu were down 93 per cent. In 2019, more than 800 Australians died of the flu. In 2020, that number to date is 36.
South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases reported only one case of the flu out of about 4,000 random surveillance tests performed. Most years the program detects about 1,000 cases. While Canada’s flu season is still in its early days — it typically starts in late August and dies out in April — Evans said all the signs here suggest Canada will report similar numbers in the end.
He said most of the credit goes to the public health measures taken to slow COVID-19 — the hand washing, social distancing and mask-wearing — as well as the dramatic drop in international travel. Evans said even if travellers from abroad are getting in, they’re less likely to bring the flu with them because influenza is so low elsewhere as well.
Canada is also pushing the flu vaccine harder than ever, and Canadians are listening. Although Canadian provinces ordered almost 25 per cent more flu shots than last year, many can’t keep up with demand.
Alberta has already vaccinated 1.14 million people, less than a month after the vaccine became available there. In 2019, the province vaccinated 1.4 million total.
Evans said a more vaccinated population fighting back a virus that is less prevalent is going to make this flu season a non-event. “It’s the perfect storm not to have a very good influenza season,” he said. Not only will that help hospitals cope with COVID-19, it means fewer Canadians are going to die.