There have been zero lab-confirmed cases of influenza in Alberta so far this season, despite more than five times as many samples being tested for seasonal influenza-A and influenza-B.
According to Dr. Kristin Klein, a Medical Officer of Health for Alberta Health Services’ North Zone-East, the reason they haven’t seen any flu yet this year is because of the heightened measures people are taking to prevent COVID-19.
“The measures that you would take to prevent flu transmission are the same as our COVID-19 measures. So things like masking, hand hygiene, physical distancing, cleaning, staying home when sick, all of those things also prevent influenza,” said Klein.
“It is slightly surprising to me that there has been zero cases [of flu] so far, but definitely it’s looking like we are going to have less flu this here because of everything we’re doing for Coronavirus,” said Klein.
According to the data available on the Alberta Health Services website, in the past five years there were an average of 6,685 lab-confirmed cases of seasonal flu in Alberta, with an average of 1,864 people being hospitalized and 57 killed by the disease.
While the exact weeks of flu season do vary from year to year, seasonal influenza typically circulates in the community during the fall and winter months.
According to AHS, Alberta Precision Laboratories has run more than 47,000 tests for seasonal influenza since August 23, 2020 “compared to 9,233 tests conducted during the same time period last year. So far this flu season there have been no positive seasonal influenza test results.”
Klein noted that most people who have the flu do not have it confirmed by the lab. “Generally, what we get from those numbers is an overall picture, or an estimate of where we’re at with flu overall.”
According to AHS, the number of respiratory swabs tested for flu does not include COVID-19 tests which are recorded separately. Asked to clarify if some of the swabs tested for flu are also being tested for COVID-19, Klein said it depends on where and why the swab was taken.
“So at our assessment centers, when people are having that test, it’s only for COVID-19. But in other places where it’s important to the more clinical care of that patient they are in most instances, also tested for influenza.”
“For example, in a hospital, or a continuing care facility. Sometimes there’s part of outbreaks for the care of certain people where it’s important to know if they have flu, like if they’re immunocompromised,” said Klein.
‘COVID tests would not pick up influenza’
One concern being expressed by critics of the response to COVID-19 is the idea that people with the flu are being misdiagnosed with COVID-19. According to Klein, that is absolutely not the case.
“The COVID-19 tests would not pick up influenza. So there wouldn’t be any chance of miscalling a COVID test an influenza test, because it actually looks for a specific piece of the virus and is able to detect that,” said Klein.
Beyond the specific test, she said the experience of COVID versus the flu is quite different.
“COVID can be very, very, very mild. So even with just a little bit of a sore throat or a runny nose or having a very mild illness, those people can have COVID and can spread it to other people.
“With the flu, most people get the flu, you feel like you’ve been hit by a Mack truck right off the bat. We call it influenza-like illness and you’re very, very tired. You could have a cough, you could have a fever, but you would feel quite unwell,” said Klein.
She said anyone who is feeling even mild symptoms should get tested for COVID and noted that even if the COVID result is negative they could still be sick with another virus and should stay home until symptoms resolve.
Flu shots up
Klein said the public response to the flu vaccine this year has been exceedingly positive and vaccination numbers comparable to where they have been at this point in previous years.
According to the AHS website, there have been 1,236,324 doses of the influenza vaccine administered since the end of September. By comparison, the average number of doses administered in an entire flu season over the past five years was 1.25 million.
“The flu vaccine does a couple of things. So it does reduce your chances of getting a flu overall. And if you do still get the flu, it does decrease the chance of having more severe outcomes,” said Klein.
She said they don’t have the data yet to know how good of a match this year’s vaccine is for the flu strains circulating, but they are expecting the flu season to be milder based on the data from the southern hemisphere where the flu season is opposite.
The flu shot is available for free to all Albertans over the age of six months. Families with children under the age of five can book immunizations for their families online, while pharmacists are offering the vaccine to anyone over the age of five.
According to Dr. Chris Sarin, a deputy medical officer of health with Indigenous Services Canada, the flu shot is also available and supported by the First Nations ISC works with.
“We have to support the bands and all Albertans with still ‘please get your flu shot,’ because although it looks good from the information we got from the southern hemisphere, we may not follow that pattern,” said Sarin.