Canada’s top doctor is warning of “increased growth” in new COVID-19 variants and an upswing in seasonal influenza cases, just as a surge of respiratory syncytial virus inundates hospitals.
Chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam said Thursday in a virtual update that the triple threat of all three viruses is posing a challenge for the health system in several parts of the country and points to the need for “stepped up precautions.”
“Although public health measures, including our individual prevention practices kept COVID-19 and seasonal respiratory viruses at bay for the past two-plus years, this third winter of COVID-19 comes with some cautions,” said Tam, stopping short of a call for mask mandates but recommended people wear them indoors.
“I know we’re all tired and we know only too well the long list of good habits that can help keep us and others healthier.”
Although a recent surge of COVID-19 cases seem to have “plateaued,” Tam said emerging Omicron variants BQ.1.1 and BF.7 are on the rise.
Meanwhile, above-seasonal numbers of RSV cases are inundating hospitals with young patients sick with common childhood illness.
Tam also noted influenza cases have “increased steeply” and are accelerating, with more than half of detected cases involving children and teens.
“So not only is COVID-19 not done with us even though we’re fatigued, we’re seeing the influenza (cases) really rising quite steeply,” she said.
“And then RSV that began a little while ago is still at a very high level. So that’s quite different from the last couple of winters, and that’s what’s putting the pressure on some of the pediatric hospitals.”
The most recent figures from public health show the flu positivity rate in mid-October was five per cent. Tam said that’s approaching the seasonal threshold for an influenza epidemic.
Tam said the resumption of school, work and indoor gatherings has invited more viral circulation, and she stressed the importance of personal protective measures including an Omicron-targeting booster shot if it’s been six months since the last vaccine dose; getting a flu shot; and wearing good quality, well-fitted face masks when indoors.
She refrained from recommending a return to indoor mask mandates or other restrictions, saying that decision remains with provincial authorities.
Still, Tam acknowledged that a dismal rate of COVID-19 vaccine uptake among kids younger than age 5 “can certainly be improved.” The national rate of babies and young kids with at least one dose hovers at 6.5 per cent, while just one per cent have completed their primary two-dose series.
It’s especially important for children with an underlying medical condition and the immunocompromised to get their shots, she said.
Families with older children who are due for a COVID-19 shot can use the opportunity to get a simultaneous dose of the flu vaccine, she added.
Deputy chief public health officer Howard Njoo acknowledged pandemic fatigue has likely set in among many Canadians, but said it was important for all to remain cautious.
“Everyone’s fed up. It’s been two-and-a-half years. Everybody wants to resume social activities, travel, take vacations, go back to work in person and in school,” said Njoo.
“It’s important for our society but I think we have to strike a balance here. We know what the good habits are.”
Cassandra Szklarski/The Canadian Press