Efforts to stop COVID-19 have kept influenza at bay in Niagara

Protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19 combined with increased influenza vaccinations seem to be stopping the spread of the flu in Niagara.

The region’s public health department has yet to report a single laboratory-confirmed case of influenza in Niagara this flu season.

The number of confirmed cases across the province are well below average, too, with only one positive case reported by Public Health Ontario during the last week of December, compared to 751 cases in the province reported during that time a year earlier.

And across the country, Health Canada’s latest FluWatch report published Jan. 2 said there have been 51 confirmed influenza cases reported since the beginning of the season, “which is significantly lower than the past six seasons where an average of 8,784 influenza detections were reported for the season to date.”

Niagara acting medical officer of health Dr. Mustafa Hirji said the lack of confirmed influenza cases illustrates “how effective the measures we’ve done for reducing COVID-19 have been.”

“They’ve actually basically suppressed influenza down to zero,” he said while updating regional councillors on the status of COVID-19 during a workshop held last Friday.

It’s not for a lack of testing for the seasonal flu.

Hirji said new swab tests are being used look for influenza and COVID-19 simultaneously.

Because COVID-19 is significantly more infectious than seasonal flu, efforts to reduce the spread of that virus have had an added benefit of almost eliminating influenza this year.

“With COVID-19, if you’re not doing anything (to prevent the spread) every case of infection leads to about four and a half additional cases,” Hirji said. “With flu, every case leads to about 1.6 additional cases.”

He said efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19 such as mask-wearing and social distancing have brought the transmission rate down to about 1.2 additional cases.

“That’s about 75 per cent down,” he said. “For influenza, that means we’ve also lowered it by 75 per cent. We’ve brought that 1.6 down to about 0.4.”

Hirji said an increase in use of the influenza vaccine further reduces the spread of influenza.

Local pharmacies and medical offices were called on to distribute influenza vaccinations this season.

Sean Simpson from the Pharmacists’ Association of the Niagara Peninsula agreed more vaccinations were provided than in previous years, but called accomplishing that task was difficult.

Simpson, a pharmacist from Niagara-on-the-Lake, said an increased number of people may have been vaccinated against the seasonal flu, but for pharmacists getting that vaccine to residents “was an unqualified disaster based on the pent up demand and the supply issues and the roll out that came to be.”

When demand was at its peak in the fall, he said, his pharmacy had a waiting list of more than 300 people, as pharmacies across Ontario faced similar challenges.

“As supply became available, we were able to work down that waiting list and ensure that everyone on that list was vaccinated,” Simpson said, adding supply issues have since been resolved.

Despite those difficulties, Simpson said pharmacists still hope to assist with the distribution of the vaccine for COVID-19 when it becomes widely available.

“I don’t know how the COVID-19 (vaccine) rollout is going to be,” he said. “If it’s organized well, we can plan for it.”



“It’s frustrating that there has been no communication or insight into that,” Simpson said.

Hirji said the reduction in international travel this year may have also helped keep influenza infection down, because it’s often spread by people travelling between the northern and southern hemispheres.

“Actually, the southern hemisphere brought flu to almost zero as well, because they did all their COVID-19 precautions during the summertime,” Hirji said.

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