Ontario’s flu season may have peaked: Moore

Ontario’s flu season may have peaked, the province’s chief physician said Thursday, which should take some of the pressure off children’s hospitals in the near future.

The Department of Health’s chief medical officer, Dr Kieran Moore, believes the flu season has peaked in recent days. Fewer people tested positive for the flu last week, as did the test positivity rate, he said.

“This again gives me some hope that we’re in a moment of flexibility where we might come down and see a reduction in the burden of disease in our community due to the flu,” Moore told The Canadian Press.

Respiratory illnesses have overwhelmed children’s hospitals across the province over the past two months, with influenza accounting for the majority of recent admissions to many of the country’s pediatric hospitals.

Major pediatric hospitals have canceled surgeries to redeploy staff to help intensive care units and emergency rooms.

“There’s some good news, I know our health system provides care to Ontarians day in and day out, but from my vantage point looking at data at the population level in Ontario, some trends are moving in a better direction, I do think that the pressure on emergency services will probably ease over the next few days,” Moore said.

The Toronto hospital said it was preparing for a second wave of respiratory illness that could last until March, with internal testing showing a clear uptick in severe influenza A strains. CHEO warned that the high number of flu patients it is seeing is likely to continue to climb in the coming weeks.

Figures released Thursday show 117 children are in intensive care across the province, with 131 available beds. Two days ago 125 children were in intensive care, the highest number ever.

Transmission of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) has also decreased slightly, Moore said, though he cautioned that the virus will linger for months and continue to put pressure on children’s hospitals.

“While RSV is still a threat, we haven’t seen it decline at the population level or at the testing level, and for me that’s one of my biggest concerns,” he said.

The total number of hospitalizations for children ages 0 to 4 in Ontario peaked at about 200 on Dec. 1, he said. It’s now down to about 170 people.

“During the holidays, we really have to be very protective of our kids,” Moore said.

Provincial data shows a sharp drop in emergency department visits across the province for children with respiratory illnesses.

As of Wednesday, the seven-day average of 763 emergency room visits for children ages 0 to 4 with respiratory illnesses compared with the historical average of 691 per week.

On Nov. 11, an average of 1,264 children visited the ER, compared with a historical seven-day average of 505, according to Acute Care Enhanced Surveillance, an Ontario-wide survey that monitors hospital registries in real time System log, display.

Children ages 5 to 17 peaked on Nov. 8 with a seven-day average of 1,146 visits for respiratory illnesses, four times the historical average.

That rolling average had fallen to 495 emergency room visits as of Tuesday, compared with a historical average of 357 for the same period.

“The number of children admitted to the hospital is steadily decreasing, and I’m watching it every day and can only hope that this continues to take the pressure off families and children and our healthcare system,” Moore said.

He said if the flu behaved like it did in Australia and the southern hemisphere winter, he would expect the flu to continue to drop sharply.

Dr. Fahad Razak, an internist at St. Michael’s Hospital and a professor at the University of Toronto, said he is cautious about declaring that the flu has peaked.

“The severity of the rise in flu cases this year is far beyond what we typically see,” he said.

“And there’s an element of unpredictability in it, because we also don’t have definitive reports on vaccination rates for susceptible adults or children.”

It’s also harder to predict, he said, because three major viruses, including COVID-19, are circulating, and the approaching holidays could lead to an increase in infections, as children and older adults are at higher risk of respiratory illness from exposure.

“In the next week or two, you have a perfect environment for increased transmission,” Razak said.

He also said it would quickly overwhelm children’s hospitals.

“Even a further small increase would further tax an already overloaded system,” Razak said.

COVID-19 has also been on a steady decline since peaking in late October.

He said the number of COVID-19 patients hospitalized peaked in October at about 2,000 patients. About 1,100 to 1,200 people have been hospitalized with the disease in recent days, Moore said.

On October 23, there were 165 adults with COVID-19 in the ICU. Provincial figures show there are 105 people in ICU today.

“I really want to thank the province of Ontario for coming forward to get the vaccine,” he said, although they only hit 50% of the population aged 70 and over who received the bivalent COVID-19 vaccine.

But only one in five adults in the province has received the bivalent booster, he said.

“We still have a long way to go,” he said.

They normally see about 30,000 Ontarians getting the shots a day, but now it’s 18,000 a day.

“Please vaccinate yourself this winter to protect your loved ones,” Moore said.

Moore said the province has distributed 5.2 million flu shots and has stockpiled 900,000 shots. He doesn’t know how many flu shots he’s had because the data-recording system is outdated. He said they plan to fix the system next year.

The Canadian Press report was first published on December 15, 2022.

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