TORONTO, Aug. 17, 2022--With back to school and a return to office around the corner, Ontario’s doctors are highlighting the need to keep up to date on vaccinations for both COVID-19 and the flu.
“We know that there will be additional challenges as we move into the fall and spend more time indoors where viruses are more easily spread,” Dr. Rose Zacharias, president of the Ontario Medical Association, said during a media briefing on living with COVID.
Ontario is facing a regular flu season and COVID-19 at the same time for the first time since the pandemic. The panel of doctors taking part in the Ask Ontario Doctors: Living with COVID briefing stressed the importance of preventing the spread of these viruses to avoid further strain on the health-care system.
Countries in the Southern Hemisphere that had little flu during the pandemic had a short but intense flu season this year.
“Australia is often our canary in the coal mine of what's going to happen here,” said Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious disease specialist at St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamilton. He predicted Ontario will also see more influenza this year because of international travel.
Ontario has one of the highest COVID-19 vaccination rates in the world, with 85 per cent of the eligible population having received at least one dose. For children ages 5 to 11, that number is only 53.5 per cent, according to Public Health Ontario.
Dr. Sloane Freeman, a pediatrician at St. Michael's Hospital, said emphasis needs to be put on getting high-risk children vaccinated.
“When we really look into the data and see which communities are most at risk or least vaccinated, it's families and children that are experiencing poverty,” said Dr. Freeman.
As many as one in four Canadian children are also behind in routine childhood immunizations because families have not engaged with the health-care system in the same way as before the pandemic.
“Why that's a concern is because then we start to see the re-emergence of these vaccine-preventable diseases that otherwise we would never have thought of as posing a risk anymore,” said Dr. Freeman.
For example, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control is investigating a possible polio outbreak in New York City.
Dr. Zacharias stressed the urgency of ensuring as many people as possible are vaccinated to avoid further pressures on hospitals, which have seen record patient volumes in emergency departments this summer.
Dr. Andrew Petrosoniak, an emergency physician and trauma team leader at St. Michael’s Hospital, said hospitalizations for respiratory illnesses like COVID-19, as well as the flu, historically rise in the fall and winter.
“A straight up prediction is there's about a 99 per cent chance that emergency departments in Ontario will be worse in the fall,” said Dr. Petrosoniak. “I'd want to say 100 per cent but I'm going to give myself a little bit of hope that maybe there's a chance that things are a little bit better.”
Dr. Petrosoniak said even a small rise in patient volumes would be difficult to manage.
One of the biggest issues facing emergency departments is staffing, he said.
“If you asked a hockey team to play an entire game on a penalty kill, or down a player, what are the odd the team wins?”
Dr. Zacharias said urgent action is needed now.
“I think you have heard that loud and clear from all of us and all perspectives of the health-care system,” she said. “We're in this together.”
The Ontario Medical Association represents Ontario’s 43,000-plus physicians, medical students and retired physicians, advocating for and supporting doctors while strengthening the leadership role of doctors in caring for patients. Our vision is to be the trusted voice in transforming Ontario’s health-care system.
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