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With Canada’s colder weather comes respiratory virus season, as flus and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) circulate alongside COVID-19. While Canadians learned a lot about how to protect themselves from illness during the pandemic, new information released by health care practitioners can help inform decisions, from the availability of flu shots to changes in COVID protocols.

This is the first weekly update from The Globe and Mail on respiratory virus season. A new update will publish every Friday. If you’re looking for more information on the topic that you don’t see here, e-mail and we’ll try to help you.

Open this photo in gallery:

Quebec Premier Francois Legault gets his COVID-flu booster shot in early November in Montreal.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

The latest news about COVID-19, flu and other respiratory illnesses

  • According to the Public Health Agency of Canada’s most recent Flu Watch report, which ended the week of Nov. 4, influenza levels are rising but lower than expected for this time of year.
  • The Public Health Agency of Canada is reporting stabilizing or decreasing COVID-19 cases and hospital admissions across many regions. During the week that ended Nov. 7, the number of hospital beds occupied by COVID-19 patients dropped from 3,938 to 3,789. But was a slight increase in the number patients in the ICU as a result of COVID-19, going from 129 to 143.
  • While XBB subvariants have been dominant across Canada in recent months, there has been substantial growth in subvariants belonging to the EG.5 lineage. PHAC estimates that at the end of October, of Oct. 22, nearly two-thirds of COVID-19 cases are caused by EG.5 subvariants. The newly approved COVID-19 vaccines target the XBB.1.5 subvariant, which was circulating in large numbers earlier this year, but evidence shows that the vaccine continues to offer strong protection against EG.5 subvariants.
  • Detected cases of RSV are on the rise and above expected levels for this time of year, according to PHAC. The virus, which is very common, can cause severe illness in infants, young children and older adults. Earlier this year, Health Canada approved the first RSV vaccine for use in adults 60 and older. While most provinces aren’t covering the cost of the vaccine this year, Ontario is making the shot available in long-term care homes for free. Dr. Kieran Moore, the province’s medical officer of health, said in an interview that this will help protect many seniors. At the end of last month, Dr. Moore said there were 67 children aged four and younger in the hospital in Ontario as a result of RSV. Another 38 people over 65 were in hospital as a result of the virus.

Getting a flu shot in Canada

Flu shot clinics and programs are ramping up across the country, with appointments being made available for anyone six months and older. Find out about clinics and availability for each of the provinces and territories here:

Newfoundland; Prince Edward Island; Nova Scotia; New Brunswick; Quebec; Ontario; Manitoba; Saskatchewan; Alberta; British Columbia; Yukon; Northwest Territories; Nunavut

Getting COVID vaccine boosters

Millions of doses of updated mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines have been shipped to provinces and territories, which are rolling them out in preparation for an anticipated busy viral season. While availability varies by region, some experts have expressed concern that not enough communication is being done about the importance of getting an updated shot.

The two authorized vaccines, manufactured by Pfizer and Moderna, both protect against the XBB.1.5 subvariant and should provide good protection against the EG.5 family. The vaccines are approved for anyone six months and older.

COVID vaccine information for the provinces and territories can be found here:

Newfoundland; Prince Edward Island; Nova Scotia; New Brunswick; Quebec; Ontario; Manitoba; Saskatchewan; Alberta; British Columbia; Yukon; Northwest Territories; Nunavut

Flu numbers in Canada

While only a small number of flu cases undergo lab testing, the numbers provide a sense of influenza activity. During the week ending Nov. 4, the percentage of flu tests that were positive was 2.3, amounting to 544 detections, according to Health Canada.

In terms of severe outcomes, from Aug. 27 to Nov. 4, 2023, there were 104 hospitalizations associated with the flu, with adults 65 years of age and older accounting for half of the cases.

Current health guidance for COVID

Symptoms of COVID-19 can vary, but generally include sore throat, runny nose, sneezing, new or worsening cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, feeling feverish, chills, fatigue or weakness, muscle or body aches, new loss of smell or taste, headache, abdominal pain and diarrhea. According to Health Canada, you may start experiencing symptoms anywhere from one to 14 days after exposure. Typically, symptoms appear between three to seven days after exposure.

Health Canada advises following the testing guidelines provided by your local public health authority if you have symptoms or have been exposed to a person with COVID. If you test positive, immediately isolate yourself from others, including those in your household, and follow the advice of your local public health authority on isolation requirements.

How to protect yourself and your loved ones from respiratory viruses

Respiratory viruses are spread from person to person or via contact with contaminated surfaces, so it’s important to protect against both forms of transmission. Health Canada recommends wearing a medical mask or respirator, washing your hands regularly or using hand sanitizer, covering your coughs and sneezes, and cleaning and disinfecting high-touch surfaces and objects. If you feel sick, stay home and limit contact with others.

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