Influenza infections are levelling off in teens and slowing down slightly in younger children, but COVID-19 infections are increasing in other age brackets, prompting the province’s top doctor to encourage immunizations prior to the holidays.
“We’re still seeing a lot of flu — it’s probably levelling off, which is good news — but we’re not out of the woods in any way and if we’re going to be getting together over the holidays, now’s the time to get that extra bit of protection, particularly if you’re around people who are more susceptible to severe illness,” Dr. Bonnie Henry said in an interview Thursday.
A sharp increase in influenza A H3N2, the predominant strain in circulation in B.C., which causes more serious illness, has been driving up hospital visits and admissions among kids and teens. So far, it has resulted in six child deaths.
In response, the province staged an immunization blitz last week, opening up walk-in clinics and adding vaccine capacity to doctors’ offices and pharmacies.
The south Island saw a 53 per cent increase in flu shots administered last weekend, compared with the previous weekend.
The Quadra Village clinic site in Victoria saw a 52 per cent increase in people getting both a COVID and flu shot, which can be administered in the same appointment.
Pediatricians and hospitals remain busy across the province treating children facing the triple threat of influenza, COVID and respiratory syncytial virus, known as RSV.
In children, the flu can lead to more serious secondary bacterial infections, including meningitis, prompting hospitals to increase the triaging of children with fevers and respiratory illness.
“If children need to go to the emergency department, parents should feel confident that they will be seen and that we have measures in place to make that as efficient as possible,” said Henry.
She said there have been no new flu-related deaths this week.
Given the very early, compressed and intense arrival of the flu this year, Henry said it’s difficult to compare this flu season with those in pre-pandemic years.
She said health officials are working with pediatricians around the province, asking them to report any flu-related deaths in children so they can be investigated. “So this year we have more information than we normally would have about influenza in children.”
Henry said families also need to make plans for options such as online visits in place of in-person ones if someone is feeling unwell. “If people aren’t feeling 100 per cent, make sure it’s OK that they not come or find other ways to participate in gatherings,” said Henry.
Of 77,500 flu doses recorded as being administered across the province from Dec. 5 to Dec. 11, 14,335 were given on Vancouver Island. More than half those doses were given during the weekend blitz Dec. 8 to 11. The numbers do not include flu shots administered by family doctors and pediatricians, which have not been recorded in the provincial system yet.
Only about 1.6 million British Columbians — 30 per cent — have had a flu shot, but Henry said “every bit makes a difference.” Given the short incubation period of the flu and its rapid spread, it’s difficult to get herd immunity “so the vaccine is much more for personal protection,” said Henry.
“We want to make sure that the youngest kids especially are protected and people with underlying health conditions that make them more at risk for severe illness or complications.”
Henry said immunization clinics for influenza vaccine and COVID shots remain busy. Flu shots, free to anyone six months and older, are available through family doctors’ offices, pharmacies and walk-in clinics through Dec. 30 on Vancouver Island. Island Health offers a webpage with options for all venues and ages (islandhealth.ca/learn-about-health/flu-influenza/where-get-flu-vaccine).
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