The province is ramping up its flu-shot campaign, especially for young children, as hospital emergency departments deal with a flu-driven spike in visits.
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said the province is seeing a “dramatic increase” in cases of Influenza A, particularly H3N2, which can cause severe illness, especially in children.
The surge began about two weeks ago and while it’s leveling off in older teens, it continues to spike in younger children who — along with seniors — are most susceptible to serious illness and complications.
Henry, speaking at a news conference in Vancouver Monday with Health Minister Adrian Dix, said it’s not too late for vaccination to make a difference. “We can blunt that and we can prevent that ongoing transmission to older adults as we come together over the holiday season, which is often when we see our influenza peaking.”
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the flu season usually lasted six weeks to two months, peaking after the winter holidays when people gather indoors. Typically in Canada every year, 15,000 to 20,000 people would be hospitalized with the flu and 2,500 to 3,000 would die.
Now, however, it’s surging earlier and the number of cases of Influenza A is way up, said Henry.
Children’s hospitals across the country have seen a surge in patients, including those affected by COVID-19, flu and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, for which there is no vaccine.
On Monday, children’s critical care beds in the province were at 63 per cent capacity, with high acuity/pediatric ICU beds at 85 per cent. (On the Island, the numbers were slightly lower: Children’s critical care bed capacity at Nanaimo Regional General Hospital was at 44 per cent capacity and Victoria General Hospital was at 50 per cent. High acuity/pediatric ICU beds at Victoria General Hospital were at 60 per cent capacity.)
At B.C. Children’s Hospital, where ER wait times were reported as 10 hours on Friday and nine on Saturday, a “code orange” that’s generally used for disasters and mass-casualty incidents was called at 6:35 a.m. Saturday and cancelled 28 minutes later.
Dix said the alert was based on information “available at the time” and promptly cancelled with new information.
Henry said while other respiratory viruses, including RSV, are levelling off in B.C., pediatricians and children’s hospitals are reporting more severe influenza and in some cases complications from influenza. Many children haven’t been exposed to the flu virus during the restrictions of the pandemic and thus haven’t built immunity.
Prime Minster Justin Trudeau said Monday he is “extremely worried” about a rise in respiratory illnesses among children as hospitals across the country report they are struggling to keep up with high volumes of patients.
Trudeau said it’s everyone’s responsibility to get vaccinated against both COVID-19 and influenza. He said health officials will consider measures such as mandatory masks.
Influenza A H3N2, which causes more severe illness, particularly in children age five and younger, is the main strain in circulation. Influenza is more concerning in young children than COVID because it can lead to secondary bacterial infections such as streptococcus or pneumococcus that can cause serious bacterial pneumonia, said Henry.
The vaccine offered this year includes H1N1 and H3N2 and two B strains, and appears to be a “very good” match to the virus circulating, offering 50 to 70 per cent protection against infection and illness, said Henry.
In B.C., influenza vaccine is free to anyone six months and older through health clinics, doctors’ offices, and pharmacies — with enhanced vaccines for seniors and FluMist for children who can’t tolerate needles.
So far, about 1.5 million British Columbians — including more than 50 per cent of those age 65 and older — have been vaccinated, using about 70 per cent of the current vaccine stock, with more expected.
However, only 20 per cent of children ages six months to 11 are vaccinated against the flu, and just 15 per cent of those age 12 to 17, said Dix, who urged parents to vaccinate their children. “What we’re seeing amongst children is a more significant influenza season by a very significant margin than last year and that reflects on the presentation at emergency departments.”
Emergency room visits in September and October of about 6,700 have increased to 6,800 to 6,900, he said.
Dr. Penny Ballem, executive lead of Immunized B.C. vaccine operations, said the province will host a vaccination blitz Dec. 9, 10, and 11 to get more people vaccinated through pharmacists, family doctors or health authority clinics designed for children, with thousands of appointments available on the GetVaccinated system.
The province will also send out emails and texts to the families of about 150,000 children age 5 and younger inviting them to make appointments.
B.C. Green Leader Sonia Furstenau, MLA for Cowichan Valley, called on the province to take steps beyond vaccination, including focusing on ventilation, masks and physical distancing.
A high number of children and teachers are missing school because they are sick, children’s wards and ERs are overwhelmed, and operations for children and infants are being cancelled, said Furstenau at a news conference Monday at the Pan Pacific Hotel in Vancouver. “I am deeply concerned for children and families in this province right now,” she said.
Dr. Sanjiv Gandhi, a pediatric cardiovascular and thoracic surgeon at B.C. Children’s Hospital who joined Furstenau at the news conference, said mandating masks is a reasonable and effective tool that should be used in addition to vaccination.
As a heart surgeon, Gandhi said, he’s seeing kids with viral infections who are sicker than he’s seen in decades. “We have all the tools to change the trajectory of this horrible situation — and it’s horrible. The only missing ingredient is courage, the courage for our leaders to be transparent to the public about what’s happening in our hospitals.”
Henry said masking in schools now is “very unlikely” to have any effect on the trajectory of the several viruses that are circulating.
Masks continue to be required in health-care settings, she said, but a general mask mandate is a “heavy handed” measure used as a “last resort when it’s something that is absolutely needed, everywhere, all the time.”
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