Alberta’s healthcare system is bracing for a combined wave of increased COVID-19 and influenza cases this fall and winter.
“We do recognize that we’re going to get another flu season that is going to come in that will impact capacity, as well as potentially another wave of COVID,” Health Minister Jason Copping said Wednesday at an unrelated news conference. “We are putting plans in place to be able to manage that.”
In a written statement, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health said it’s “reasonable to expect” more respiratory viruses like influenza, RSV and COVID-19 to circulate in the fall and winter. She pointed to the influenza season Australia is dealing with right now – a season that runs from May to October in the southern hemisphere.
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“In this year’s influenza season in Australia, case counts were higher than any previous year in the past five years, and while influenza hospitalizations were lower than the worst two influenza seasons in the past five years, they did peak at a level higher than the five-year average,” Dr. Deena Hinshaw wrote.
“If we see a similar impact here, what we need to anticipate as being different from any previous year is the combined impact on all our systems of all these viruses circulating at the same time.”
Like other jurisdictions, Alberta’s latest influenza season had a late-season start and the numbers of lab-confirmed positive cases were fewer than in the past five years. Many clinicians and researchers attributed the lower influenza numbers to the more widespread usage of masks among other non-pharmaceutical interventions.
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At a press conference about adding more AHS business to chartered surgical facilities, Dr. Sid Viner, vice-president and medical director of clinical operations at Alberta Health Services, outlined the plans to protect hospital capacity in the coming cold-weather months.
“We’ll do that through measures that we know have worked in the past: promoting vaccination – particularly for patients who and people who are more vulnerable to serious health outcomes, our staff and physicians, so that they’re able to continue working and aren’t sidelined by illness – through rigorous adherence to infection prevention and control measures, and as noted, through adding surge capacity – both inpatient and ICU – so that we can protect our surgical capacity,” Viner said.
But Premier Jason Kenney seems to think COVID-19’s severity is attenuating.
“We do know that the new variants of the disease continue to have a little less severity – there are lower levels of hospitalization,” Kenney said Wednesday, at the same press conference.
In late January and early February, nearly two years after the first COVID-19 case was detected in Alberta, hospitalizations driven by the Omicron variant broke previous records. Even the rate of hospitalizations in late January broke previous high-water marks.
Dr. Maria Kherkove, COVID-19 technical lead for the World Health Organization, said Wednesday that it would still be some time before the virus that causes COVID-19 will “fall into a seasonal pattern” like Influenza. The virus is still evolving and lacks “predictability,” she said.
Kenney said the summer’s wave of hospitalizations driven by the BA.5 subvariant – a wave that is currently at an apparent peak – “did not result in significant additional pressure on the health care system.”
Cold & flu season
The number of COVID hospitalizations in Alberta during the early July intra-wave trough was near the peak of the wave in spring 2021 when a primary series of two doses of vaccination wasn’t widely available.
Vaccinations can prevent transmission of COVID-19 and have been most effective at preventing severe disease, hospitalization and death.
The latest vaccination data from the Public Health Agency of Canada shows Alberta lags all other provinces in first, second and booster doses in every age range.
Children continue to be hospitalized from COVID-19
The weekly data release from the province showed overall hospitalizations are down in the province, to 799 from 857 from the week before. ICU COVID patient numbers remained flat at 20.
But a dozen Albertans aged 19 and younger were admitted to hospital due to COVID in the past week. Four more entered ICU, two of whom were under one year old.
The week prior, 11 kids under 19 were hospitalized and 20 were admitted to hospital in the week of Aug. 23.
In the week ending Wednesday, 42 more deaths were attributed to COVID-19, bringing the pandemic death toll to 4,832.
The seven-day average of PCR tests fell two points to 16.68 per cent. Throughout this year, PCR tests have been restricted to people with clinical risk factors or who live and work in high-risk settings.
Flu shots coming in mid-October
With the return to school, pharmacists are looking ahead to the flu season and providing vaccinations.
“Generally, (flu) shots start mid-October. This year, we’ve been told Oct. 17 – I believe that’s the official kickoff date,” Brain Jones, pharmacist-owner at a Shoppers Drug Mart in Calgary, told Global News. “So we’re looking very forward to getting as many people vaccinated as possible.”
Jones said a typical flu season in Alberta starts in October and peaks in December. But the past two seasons of much lower than average lab-confirmed cases have left immune systems vulnerable.
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“Australia has had a terrible flu season this past year. For a lot of people that are sick, the biggest reason is we haven’t been exposed to influenza for a couple of years now. So any immunity that we may have gotten is definitely on its lowest point in a while,” he said.
Flu shots for Canada are typically formulated from the influenza strain circulating in Australia in February, Jones said, and are highly effective.
The pharmacist said the most common advice he gives to customers who are new to flu shots is catching the flu from vaccination is impossible.
“It can absolutely make you feel a little unwell,” Jones said. “It’s very common for the first- and second-year people to get more symptoms than the rest of us.
“But keeping in mind, we’re not only doing it for us, we’re doing it for those around us. A lot of us have grandparents. A lot of us have other vulnerable people. Even just the person on the street that you pass by — you could potentially spread the flu without even knowing it.”
Jones said influenza vaccinations will be booked via provincial health or pharmacy websites, and some of the private industry websites will provide notifications of when flu shots are available.
Monkeypox cases continue upward trend
Alberta counted 34 total cases of monkeypox as of Wednesday, more than double the number a month ago.
On Aug. 5, Alberta counted 16 total cases. Between Aug. 12 and 26, 12 new cases were added by public health officials. Since Aug. 26, three more cases have been documented.
Vaccination for monkeypox in Alberta is open to anyone 18 and older who self-identify as being in groups who the province believe to be at the greatest risk of catching the virus, or staff and volunteers in a venue or event where sexual activities between man may take place.
According to provincial authorities, Monkeypox does not spread easily between people but can spread with direct physical contact, prolonged exposure to respiratory droplets or contact with materials used by an infected individual.
–with files from Teresa Wright and Aaron D’Andrea, Global News
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