Flu season in Canada ‘exceptionally low’ so far, public health says

OTTAWA — At this point during last year’s flu season, Canada had already recorded 711 positive cases of influenza.

So far this year, there have been just 17.

“Influenza is way behind the eight ball here,” said Dr. Gerald Evans, chair of infectious disease in the department of medicine at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.

Many health experts feared that a fall wave of COVID-19 would not only be worse than the first wave in the spring, but 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 almost 60 per cent of the total confirmed cases in Canada being diagnosed since Sept. 1. Dr. Theresa Tam said there has been an average of 1,675 patients in hospital with COVID-19 in the last week, about one-fifth of them in critical care.

The flu, however, is telling a different story.

Tam said she doesn’t like to “forecast too early” and it is still in the early weeks of flu season, but “it’s definitely looking good at this point.”

“We have an extraordinarily low number of influenza cases, despite testing at a higher rate than what we normally do,” Tam said at a news conference in Ottawa Tuesday afternoon.

The most recent national flu report says 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.

The average number of lab-confirmed flu cases by now over the last six years is 818. So far this year countrywide, there have been just 17.

This despite testing more than twice as many people for flu than usual – almost 10,000 tests done in the first week of November, compared to a six-year average of about 4,500.

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.

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 handwashing, 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.

Tam said all the efforts to keep the flu at bay are both working and essential to managing the COVID-19 pandemic.

“You cannot afford to have influenza cases coming in and taking up emergency room and hospital bed capacity,” she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 17, 2020.

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