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With Canada’s colder weather comes respiratory virus season, with influenza and RSV circulating alongside the COVID-19 virus that remains with us. While Canadians learned a lot about how to protect themselves from illness over the course of the pandemic, new information released by health care practitioners can help inform decisions, from availability of flu shots to any changes in COVID-19 protocols.

We’ll be publishing an update on respiratory virus season each week. Looking for more information on the topic that you don’t see here? E-mail to see whether we can help you.

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A woman wearing a protective face mask leaves a health centre in Madrid, Spain, on Jan. 10.SUSANA VERA/Reuters

The latest news

  • British Columbia reported a record-breaking 10,435 people in hospital one day last week as influenza, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and COVID-19 filled wards to the brim. Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix held a news conference to encourage residents to get their COVID-19 and flu shots. B.C. is not alone in grappling with overflowing emergency departments and hospital wards, a challenge compounded by staff shortages. Quebec health officials have been urging patients to stay away from ERs if they can. The province’s Health Minister said he expects ERs to be overtaxed for most of the winter.
  • Canada’s top vaccine experts say seniors and younger people with compromised immune systems should get another dose of a COVID-19 vaccine this spring. The National Advisory Committee on Immunization made the recommendation on Friday so that provincial vaccination programs could prepare for a spring mini-campaign for the most vulnerable. As of early December, only 15 per cent of Canadians had received a reformulated version of the shot targeting the XBB family of variants.
  • The Canadian Medical Association, which represents doctors across the country, issued a call to action urging the provincial and territorial governments that have yet to do so to sign bilateral health funding deals with Ottawa. In her statement, CMA president Kathleen Ross drew special attention to the toll respiratory viruses are taking on a fragile health system. “Staff shortages and hospital overcrowding combined with poor access to high-quality team-based primary care are leaving hospital emergency departments woefully under-resourced for the avalanche of patients with influenza, COVID-19 or respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) at this time of year,” she said.
  • Spain is proposing a return to mask mandates at health-care facilities as respiratory illnesses, including COVID-19 and influenza, are sweeping across Europe. The viruses are hitting some European countries harder than others.

Flu outlook in Canada

The Public Health Agency of Canada noted in its FluWatch report that influenza activity actually decreased in the first week of January – despite it feeling like everyone is getting sick right now. Nationally, the share of flu tests that came back positive in the week that ended Jan. 6 was 15 per cent, down from 18.7 per cent in the last week of December and 17.3 per cent the week before that.

Overall, flu activity levels remain elevated and are in line with a regular, prepandemic flu season, the report said. Some parts of the country are faring worse than others, including British Columbia and Prince Edward Island, where influenza is widespread.

The vast majority of cases confirmed by labs last week were influenza A; of those, three-quarters were H1N1. That strain is the culprit behind nearly all flu-associated hospital admissions in Canada this season.

In the week ending Jan. 6, there were 229 people in hospital, at least 42 of whom were children, because of the flu. There were seven flu-related deaths. So far this season, 316 children have been admitted to hospital because of influenza at pediatric centres that are contributing to a new surveillance network. The weekly FluWatch report has not been reporting data on pediatric flu deaths, but the BC Centre for Disease and Control has reported at least three flu-related deaths in children under 10. All the children had secondary bacterial infections that contributed to their deaths, Dr. Henry said.

Flu shots

Flu shots are still available at clinics, doctors’ offices and pharmacies across the country, with appointments 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

Hospitalizations for COVID-19

There were 4,705 people in hospital as a result of COVID-19 during the week that ended Jan. 9, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada, a slight increase from the previous week, when 4,625 were in hospital. The number of patients with COVID-19 in intensive care beds also rose, to 173 from 155.

COVID-19 boosters

The three authorized vaccines, manufactured by Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Novavax, protect against the XBB.1.5 subvariant of COVID-19 and should provide good protection against the related EG.5 family. The reformulated mRNA shots from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna are approved for anyone six months and older. Novavax’s shot is approved for those 12 and up.

COVID-19 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

Current health guidance for COVID-19

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-19. 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 through 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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