It’s that time of year again. The leaves are changing colours, the days are getting shorter, and there’s a certain crispness in the air. And as also happens every year around this time, flu season is just around the corner. Last year, I warned about the possibility of a twindemic. Thankfully, the worst of that scenario did not materialize: social distancing, frequent hand washing, sneeze and cough etiquette, mask wearing and lockdowns meant to protect us from COVID-19 also helped to end the flu season early in Canada. This year, however, as restrictions are loosened, and we see increasing numbers of people gathering and interacting socially, the flu is expected to make a comeback.
Canadians have largely embraced the lifesaving COVID-19 vaccines. More than 81 per cent of eligible Canadians have rolled up their sleeves and are double vaccinated. They did the right thing to protect themselves, their loved ones and their communities. But approximately 30 per cent of all Canadians are not yet fully vaccinated, because they are still ineligible to receive it as is the case with young children, or they are waiting for their second dose, or worse yet, they have refused the vaccine on other grounds. We are still very much in the midst of the pandemic. We most likely will never completely eradicate COVID-19. However, with higher levels of vaccination we can reduce the risk of death and hospitalizations and this is important, particularly as we face the return of flu season.
This is the fourth wave of the pandemic and the delta variant remains the dominant strain. Delta is nearly twice as contagious as earlier variants and might be causing more severe illness in patients. As we are seeing in our hospitals, the greatest risk of transmission of the delta variant is among the unvaccinated population. This is why it’s even more important that people get their double dose of the COVID-19 vaccines.
The pandemic is not over. I worry that the loosening of restrictions will lead to a false sense of security. After such a long time of limitations I completely understand that people want to get back to normal and blow off some steam. However, we can’t sacrifice the gains we’ve made, especially with a significant portion of our population who still have not been vaccinated. We’ve seen how our hospital resources can still be inundated as cases rise in the community, largely from people who have not been vaccinated. With this in mind, we must remember that the public health measures that protect us from COVID, also protect against the flu: hand hygiene, coughing etiquette, distancing, staying home when sick, and wearing masks. It’s also important to note that because we have been practicing these safety measures we have been less exposed to influenza viruses and our bodies have built up less natural immunity to new viruses as a result.
The most effective way to protect yourself and others against influenza is with the annual flu shot. Doctors, myself included, turn into broken records this time of year with our mantra: “get your flu shot.” The flu virus spreads through droplets that can enter the body through the eyes, nose or mouth, similar to the COVID-19 virus. The flu virus changes every year and this year’s vaccine provides protection against four different strains of the virus. When it becomes available in your community, I encourage you to get the shot to protect yourself and others from the virus. Keep in mind that children born during the pandemic have yet to be exposed to a normal flu season and are particularly vulnerable along with older adults and those who are immunocompromised.
With the arrival of the latest flu season, it’s more important than ever that we continue to practice the public health guidelines that have been in place since the arrival of the pandemic: wear a mask, wash your hands regularly and watch your distance. Don’t let COVID fatigue set in and make you complacent to the guidelines, and don’t let a false sense of security stop you from getting the flu shot. A number of recent studies have shown that it is safe to get the COVID-19 and influenza vaccines around the same time, so if you haven’t yet been vaccinated against COVID I strongly urge you to book your appointment. Only by working together for the common good will we end the pandemic and get through the uncertainty of this flu season.