An Alberta disease expert is urging people in the province to get their flu shot when it rolls out in October, saying that everyone will need to be even more careful to avoid overloading the health-care system amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The most important thing that people could do this fall would be to get the flu shot,” Dr. Kirsten Fiest, a professor of epidemiology and critical care medicine at the University of Calgary, said Tuesday.
“If they haven’t got it in the past, this would be the year,” Fiest said. “Without a doubt, it is one of the most critical public health things people could do, in addition to wearing masks and maintaining distancing.
“Getting a flu shot is essential.”
When will the flu shot be available?
The province is set to roll out the influenza vaccine on Oct. 13 for vulnerable populations, like seniors in long-term care and homeless Albertans.
“Health practitioners will begin offering vaccines to vulnerable groups as soon as they receive it, which should be by Oct. 13 at the latest,” said Tom McMillan, a spokesperson for Alberta Health.
“This will be done through the Alberta Outreach Program.”
He added that all Albertans will be able to get the vaccine when the provincial immunization campaign begins on Monday, Oct. 19.
McMillan said that “how and where Albertans can get immunized will be shared in early October.” Last year, Alberta ran province-wide clinics, and some pharmacies and physician offices also offered the vaccine.
In June, Alberta Health told Global News it is ordering more doses of the influenza vaccine this year in anticipation of increased demand.
Last year, the province ordered 1.6 million doses of the vaccine; this year, it is ordering approximately 360,000 more doses for a total of roughly two million doses. Health officials expect there will be more interest in getting the shot this year.
Fiest said she believes more people will get the vaccination this year as public health is more on the mind for most people.
“People are just more aware of the effects of upper respiratory illnesses in general,” she said, “based on what they’ve heard, the advice from physicians in the province to follow the public health guidance. Hopefully, it’s just kind of improved those behaviours across the board.”
Vaccine, distancing could prevent ‘double whammy’
Fiest added that she believes the social distancing that people have now made a part of their daily lives could also help lower the influenza rates. However, if influenza hits at the same time as another COVID-19 wave, that’s when it could become problematic.
“The big concern would also be overwhelming the resources of the health-care system. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that people with COVID-19 could get influenza or vice versa,” she said.
“It really scares me, actually, the potential to have this double whammy.”
She added that the reason people can be infected with both COVID-19 and influenza is because they are two distinct viruses, with different etiology (causes).
One positive note is that there is some evidence from Australia’s 2020 flu season — which takes place over North America’s summer — that there were fewer cases and deaths from influenza due to increased health measures related to the pandemic.
In a report released July 31, Australia’s health ministry noted that “influenza and influenza-like illness activity are lower than average across all systems for this time of year.”
Australia had 36 laboratory-confirmed flu deaths from January to July 26, 2020, the report said. Over the same period a year earlier, there were 383 confirmed deaths.
However, Australia’s flu season fell over a period that saw major lockdowns and stay-home orders from the government due to COVID-19. Alberta’s government has made it clear it does not intend to implement a second lockdown.
“We have to be focused on the imperative of not just saving lives but also saving livelihoods,” Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said on Sept. 9.
Flu vs. COVID-19 numbers
In 2019-20, there were 1,534 hospitalizations and 39 in-hospital deaths among Albertans with lab-confirmed influenza. In the season before, from 2018-19, there were 1,976 hospitalizations and 52 deaths.
As of Sept. 26, there have been 809 hospitalizations related to COVID-19 in Alberta and 261 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic in March, according to officials.
–With files from Julia Wong and Leslie Young, Global News
© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.
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