TORONTO - What’s comforting about Covid-19 cases aplenty and the new, highly transmissible UK variant circulating throughout communities and countries struggling to contains Covid-19 infections? Influenza levels remain “exceptionally low”. Initial fears that flu cases would exacerbate an overburdened health care system dealing with the coronavirus pandemic have not quite materialized. Thank heavens for that.
This is good news because the flu virus can lead to serious complications and death. According to Statistics Canada, 2,893 deaths were attributed to influenza and pneumonia in 2019. It is among the top ten leading causes of death in the country.
Typically, the flu season in Canada starts mid-November and last until early spring. However, this season (2020-2021), instances of the flu have remained below levels seen in previous years.
According to the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), as of January 23, 2021, health officials reported only 56 laboratory confirmed cases of influenza. This is significantly lower than the average 21,106 cases reported during the same period over the past six years.
In fact, during the first three weeks of 2021 alone, PHAC reported no confirmed cases of the flu. And it is not for a lack of testing. Tests conducted during the week ending January 23 (close to 13,000), was higher than average compared to the previous six years, (11,820 tests). Test positivity is at a all time low - 0% - compared to 23.6% from previous years.
These results should not be at all surprising. Covid-19 precautions have helped minimizes cases of influenza. Following infection prevention and control measures to reduce the spread of coronavirus, (wearing face masks, social distancing, lockdowns and “stay-at-home” orders) has had a significant impact on seasonal viruses.
Add to that an enhanced flu shot campaign. Canada had ordered close to 25% more flu shots than the previous year. Earlier in the season, some pharmacies and doctor’s offices had difficulty keeping up with the demand.
The decreased prevalence of the seasonal cold and flu has resulted in other unintentional effects. It seems to have weakened demand for medicine and natural health products to treat sore throats and nasal congestion. Late last month, a P.E.I. company, Island Abbey Foods, laid off 30 employees due to a reduction in demand for its Honibe lozenges.
The reduction of international travel has also contributed to a weaker cold and flu season. Unfortunately, it was not enough to keep out the more contagious Covid-19 variant from the UK.
In Ontario, the mutated virus is now spreading in the community. As of February 1, there are now 69 confirmed cases of the B.1.1.7 variant. Dr. Adalsteinn Brown, co-chair of the province’s Covid-19 science table said, it “will likely be the dominant version of the virus by March”. Not exactly comforting news as the province prepares to reopen all school as early as next week.