TORONTO, Nov. 9, 2022 – The most important thing Ontarians can do to protect themselves against the “triple threat” of respiratory viruses this fall and winter is to get both the flu shot and COVID-19 boosters, Ontario’s doctors said today.
Ontario is facing the “triple threat” of the flu, which has arrived early, a resurgent a viral disease in children known as RSV and the continued circulation of COVID-19.
This comes as the province’s health-care system is already under immense strain, well before the usual increase in emergency department visits and hospitalizations due to respiratory illnesses in the winter. Emergency departments have seen record volumes in recent months, on top of staff shortages and burnout, as patients return to the health-care system in large numbers.
“Heading into winter, we know the rate of viral illnesses will increase and we want to be prepared by encouraging our population to get vaccinated, get the flu shots, get their COVID boosters and avoid going out in public if you have symptoms,” Dr. Rose Zacharias, president of the Ontario Medical Association, said at an Ask Ontario’s Doctors media briefing on the “triple threat.”
Ontario had few flu cases during the pandemic because of public health measures aimed at preventing the spread of COVID, such as mandatory masking and physical distancing. But those restrictions are no longer in place.
The flu arrived in Ontario more than a month earlier than usual this year. According to Public Health Ontario, there were 866 lab-confirmed cases of flu the week of Oct. 23, compared to none the same week in 2021. There have been a total of 1,544 cases of flu so far this year compared to seven at the same time in 2021.
RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, is also on the rise as children previously shielded by COVID-19 health restrictions are being exposed to it for the first time. RSV usually circulates from November to March but it also arrived in Ontario about a month early this year.
Meanwhile, we are still in a COVID pandemic. Almost 10,000 new cases were confirmed the week of Oct.30 and hospitalization rates are higher than they have been since February.
Dr. Rod Lim, the medical director for the pediatric emergency department at Children’s Hospital in London, said the entire pediatric health-care system is under strain because of these seasonal viruses.
“It's a little bit of a perfect storm right now, because of not only the numbers but obviously we have a lot of manpower challenges,” he said at the OMA media briefing. “And on top of that, we've been having a lot of supply chain issues, which has added to the challenge of doing our jobs."
Dr. Lim said his emergency department was built to handle about 100 visits a day but one day this week had double that number. He said he expects to see a record number of patients in November.
“We are being incredibly creative to try to see them in in alternate care spaces and trying to provide the humanity that is necessary,” he said.
Dr. Howard Ovens, an emergency physician at Sinai Health in Toronto, said nobody wants to go to the emergency department and he suggested other places to seek care first. But he also stressed if someone is having a serious or potentially life-threatening emergency they need to call 911 or go to an emergency department right away.
“We’re here for you and don’t delay if you're over 30 and you have chest pain, if you're experiencing shortness of breath, if you're feeling faint or are light-headed and it doesn't pass quickly, if you're having severe abdominal pain, nausea or vomiting.”
But for patients without serious symptoms, Dr. Ovens advised: “Take a deep breath and think things through a little bit. Try calling your family doctor or Health Connect Ontario by going to their website or calling 811 and get some information on how to manage the symptoms you're having and whether you need a trip to the emergency department.”
Dr. Ovens also noted these are stressful times and asked people to be kind to the health-care workers in emergency departments.
“Remember the people who are there in the emergency department are not the reason you're waiting so long,” he said. “They’re the reason you're getting care. Please be kind. Please be courteous. We're doing the best we can.”
Dr. Vinita Dubey, the associate medical officer of health for Toronto Public Health, said that in addition to getting flu and COVID shots, Ontarians can also protect themselves against the “triple threat” by:
Dr. Dubey said there are signs people may be suffering from vaccine fatigue, but it’s not too late for everyone to roll up their sleeves and get flu and COVID shots.
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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Leslie Shepherd, OMA Director of Earned and Social Media