Preparing for an Unpredictable Flu Season

Woman feeling sick checking thermometer

Last year’s flu season in Canada saw a drastic decline in infection rates, likely due in part to mask mandates, social distancing measures, and travel restrictions. The Public Health Agency of Canada typically logs upwards of 43,000 influenza cases during flu season, however during the 2020-2021 season, they logged just 66 confirmed cases.

On top of fewer influenza cases, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infections were also down. Like influenza, RSV is a common virus that infects the lungs and respiratory tract. It typically causes mild, cold-like symptoms in adults, however it can cause severe infections in young children, seniors, and the immunocompromised.

During the 2020-2021 season, nearly 340,000 RSV tests were reported through the Centre for Immunization and Respiratory Infections Diseases, with only 239 positive tests. Compare that to the previous year where nearly 413,000 tests were reported with 18,860 returning as positive.

And now, with travel resuming, school back in session, and much of the world cautiously returning to normal, hospitals and healthcare providers are bracing for what will likely be a highly unpredictable flu season.

But it might not be all bad news. 

“Australia has always been a good indicator of how the flu season will play out in Canada,” said Dr. Naila Kassam, a Toronto-based primary care physician and Think Research’s Senior Medical Advisor. “In countries south of the equator, the flu season generally runs from April to October with a peak often occurring in August. Because of this, Australia often serves as a warning of what’s to come.” 

If the correlation remains true, the numbers to date are encouraging. According to the Australian Government Department of Health, following historically low levels observed from April 2020 onwards, influenza-like-illness in 2021 remains at low levels. There’s been only 484 cases recorded as of August. 

However, both Australia and the United States have seen a recent resurgence in RSV cases as pandemic-related restrictions are relaxed. And with COVID-19 variants still spreading and many hospitals across the country nearing full capacity, it’s a stark reminder of the importance of remaining vigilant and continuing to do our part to stop the spread of these potentially deadly respiratory viruses to ensure hospitals have room to continue treating patients.

 “All of the things we’re doing to curb the spread of COVID-19 – masking, social distancing, frequent hand washing, decreasing contact with others – all of this really helps limit the spread of the flu and other respiratory viruses as well,” said Dr. Kassam. 

“If we continue with these preventative measures until the end of flu season, we can probably expect numbers to be slightly higher than last year due to relaxed restrictions, but lower overall than a typical year.”

What if you suspect you have a respiratory virus? 

Despite preventative measures, respiratory infections are bound to happen. Many of the symptoms of influenza, RSV and COVID-19 are similar, and can include varying degrees of: 

  • Fever or chills
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Muscle pain or body aches
  • Headache
  • Vomiting and diarrhea
  • Change in or loss of taste or smell (more frequent with COVID-19)

“If you are experiencing emergency symptoms like shortness of breath or you’re feeling very unwell, go to the emergency department,” said Dr. Kassam. “Otherwise get a COVID-19 test and quarantine until you get a negative test result. If it’s negative, you should still self-isolate and take extra precautions until your symptoms resolve, and reach out to your primary care provider if you have any questions.”

And of course, be sure you’re up-to-date on important vaccines. If you haven’t been vaccinated against COVID-19 and you’re eligible, do so as soon as you can. The Government of Canada also recently released guidance stating it’s safe to receive a flu shot at the same time as your COVID-19 vaccine, or any time before or after. 


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