Why it’s important to get your flu shot this winter

Brace for a “twindemic” — a serious flu season coming amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

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B.C. could be in for a tough flu season, according to two influenza experts who say one of the best ways to stay healthy will be to roll up your sleeve for another jab.

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As we head into our second winter amid the COVID-19 pandemic, there are several reasons the flu outlook is more dire than last year, said Dr. Brian Conway, medical director of the Vancouver Infectious Diseases Centre and an assistant professor at the University of B.C.

During the 2020-2021 flu season, only 18 cases of influenza were detected in B.C. as the province was in various stages of lockdown over the coldest months of the year. Typically, the province counts several thousand flu cases, with about 4,100 during the 2018-2019 flu season.

Conway said the decrease can likely be attributed to COVID-19 lockdowns that cut the number of interpersonal interactions to about 40 per cent of normal and limited the flu’s ability to spread.

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“This year our interactions are at about 80 or 90 per cent of normal, which is a significant difference,” he said.

Last year’s relatively flu-free season could impact this year in other ways as well.

Conway said there will likely be less “background immunity” in the community, meaning the number of people who have had exposure to the flu virus in the past, bestowing them, and the community, with a little extra protection.

The design of the flu shot — one of the best tools for combating flu outbreaks — has been hampered as well.

Conway said scientists typically base the formulation on viruses circulating in the southern hemisphere, as well as data collected during the previous year’s flu season. With limited flu spread last winter, “this year’s vaccine will be a little more of a guess than usual.”

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But the professor maintained a flu shot is still one of the best ways to protect yourself and the community — not only from getting the virus, but from more severe illness as well.

“We’ve been spoiled with the COVID shot,” he said. “The flu shot at the best of times is about 50 to 60 per cent effective, and if you’re over 65, you lose about 20 per cent of that effectiveness.”

The final factor concerning the flu expert is the rising level of frustration in the community.

“We’re all tired of this,” he said in reference to the pandemic. “I’m worried some complacency may set in.”

If people begin to defy restrictions or let up on things like masking and handwashing, the flu could very easily take hold.

Conway said some U.S. models are predicting this year’s flu season could see double the amount of cases compared to a pre-COVID year.

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Dr. Ran Goldman said B.C. should brace for a “twindemic” — a serious flu season coming at the same time as the COVID-19 pandemic. In a typical year, more than a thousand Canadians die of influenza, said the pediatrician and UBC professor. “The flu can be a very serious illness.”

Scientists have been working to gain a better understanding of how COVID-19 interacts with the flu, but the research has been limited by the low number of influenza cases last year.

Goldman said it’s fair to assume that getting both viruses at the same time could “overwhelm” a person’s immune system, while getting them one after another would be difficult on a person’s body.

He said parents, in particular, face a difficult task trying to differentiate between colds, flu and COVID-19.

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In general, a cold will present with a runny nose and congestion, while influenza and COVID-19 come with a fever, he said. Influenza can be like “hitting a wall,” with strong symptoms like fever and muscle pain coming on fast, while COVID can take time to ramp up and linger longer.

They are “not easy to differentiate,” he said, advising people to get a COVID-19 test to be certain.

In her Wednesday briefing, Dr. Bonnie Henry said there has been a “dramatic increase” in the number of school-aged children being tested for COVID-19 since school began — from about 100 per day to 500 in the last three weeks. The test positivity rate, however, has stayed lower or gone down.

“The one area we’re seeing that is still high is children aged five to 11 where it’s around five to 10 per cent,” said the provincial health officer. “That means that the case numbers are going up in that age group in particular.”

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But Henry said the trend in COVID-19 cases among school-aged children remains linked to vaccination, with communities with lower vaccination rates seeing the increases.

The latest edition of the BCCDC’s influenza surveillance bulletin, which covers the time period from May to the end of August, says no influenza viruses were detected among almost 15,000 specimens tested over the summer. In pre-pandemic 2019, 237 influenza viruses were detected among 1,100 specimens tested over the same months.

The BCCDC expects to release more information related to flu season and the flu shot in mid-October.

gluymes@postmedia.com

twitter.com/glendaluymes

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