Influenza instances waning, says region’s medical officer of health

By James Matthews

By James Matthews
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Influenza in the Haliburton, Kawartha, and Pine Ridge public health region seems to be declining since its peak in December.

Dr. Natalie Bocking, medical officer of health for the region, said there have been fewer instances of the respiratory illness, fewer outbreaks being declared, and fewer admissions to hospitals for influenza.

“Since the beginning of December, it’s actually come back down,” she said. “We’re still above what’s expected for seasonal averages, but much improved since that peak at the beginning of December.”

The decrease is likely due to an easing in the transmission of the flu locally.

Obviously, this is good news, she said.

In southern jurisdictions where flu season begins earlier, Bocking said there’s been a trend in which the illness increased quickly, peaked at a higher than usual level, and dropped rather quickly.

“It seems to be staying down,” she said. “Certainly there’s still some activity, but it doesn’t seem to be having a second peak or a third peak.”

Bocking said public health officials are hopeful the brunt of the flu season has passed.

“There will still be influenza cases,” she said. “If you have not yet received your influenza vaccine or your flu shot, I would say it’s still worth getting your flu shot.”

Most of the flu identified in the region has been influenza A, she said.

But that somewhat good news is tempered by an increase in COVID-19 diagnoses. Provincial test positivity has crept back up to about 17 per cent.

“This is largely still being driven by the variants BQ.1 and BQ.1.1,” Bocking said.

Those omicron variants are causing increased transmission and increased outbreaks across Ontario.

Locally, there’s been an increase in signs of COVID-19 activity, she said. There’s seven outbreaks in the region, six of which are in long-term care facilities.

“I think we could be starting to see very early signs of increased spread of COVID-19 throughout the communities again,” she said. “This wouldn’t be surprising. Other areas of the province have already seen an increase in activity.”

However, the increased activity hasn’t translated into a rise in hospital admissions, she said.

The last year was a challenge because of the coronavirus, with more deaths than previously during the pandemic, she said.

“Despite the fact that omicron as a variant of COVID-19 is less severe than the original virus, the fact that it spread so easily and is still more severe than other respiratory infections such as influenza, it means that we still do see an increased burden on the health care system,” she said.

The outlook for 2023, Bocking said, is a trend that sees increased COVID-19 transmission about every 90 days as new variants emerge before the transmission slows.

“We call them waves,” she said. “We call them surges. Whatever you want to call it.”

And there’s no reason to believe that trend will change, especially given the emergence of the XBB1.5 variant that’s been spreading throughout the northeastern United States and has been identified in Canada.

“It’s very quickly become the most dominant sub-variant,” Bocking said.

The good news, she said, is that the latest sub-variant doesn’t cause severe illness. Though highly transmissible, vaccinations will lessen its severity and stave off hospital admissions.

“There continues to be lots of questions about how often it will be recommended to get boosted with COVID-19 vaccines,” she said.

That uncertainty will continue as health care providers learn about the protective effect of vaccines and as new variants emerge.

Within the region last fall, almost 60 per cent of residents aged 70 years old and older got a booster dose of vaccine.

“Because the vaccine works well against severe illness, we’d like to see that number as high as we can get it,” Bocking said. “And we’ll continue to promote the bivalent vaccine for booster doses as long as we know that it continues to still be effective.”

She said there continues to be a need for people to wear a mask when in crowded public places. It’s an effective way to stymie the illness’ spread and to decrease the burden on the health care system.

“Masking is still a really important way that we’re also protecting other members of the community, most vulnerable member of the community,” she said.