OTTAWA — Manitoba has yet to register a single case of influenza this fall, giving a silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic, which on its own has threatened hospital capacity.
At this point last year, Manitoba had logged roughly 60 cases of the flu. On Tuesday, its Health Department told the Free Press it hasn’t launched its weekly reporting because no cases have been recorded.
Nationally, there have been just 17 cases logged across Canada, as of Monday. At this point last year, the nation had already recorded 711 positive cases of influenza.
"Influenza is way behind the eight-ball here," said Dr. Gerald Evans, chair of infectious disease in the department of medicine at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.
Many health experts feared a fall wave of COVID-19 would not only be worse than the first wave in the spring, but it would come just as seasonal flu infections started to spread, making it impossible for hospitals to keep up.
COVID-19 is proving to be worse this fall, with more than 1,400 people in hospital nationally, about one-fifth of them in critical care. The flu, however, is not.
In the first week of November, not one province or territory reported a single patient hospitalized with the flu, compared with 60 during the same week a year ago.
In 2019, provinces reported 147 lab-confirmed cases of flu the first week of November; this year, they reported four.
This despite testing more than twice as many people for flu than usual — almost 10,000 tests done in the first week of November, compared to a six-year average of about 4,500.
"This would be the beginning of our usual flu season, and we have an extraordinarily low number of influenza cases, despite testing at a higher rate than what we normally do," Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, told reporters Tuesday.
"That’s a pretty good sign that the hygienic and public health measures we’ve implemented for COVID-19 are obviously having an impact."
Signs from the Southern Hemisphere, which gets hit with flu season first, were reason to hope the "twindemic" wasn't going to happen in Canada.
New Zealand said its flu infections were down 99.8 per cent. In Australia, lab-confirmed cases of flu were down 93 per cent. In 2019, more than 800 Australians died of the flu; in 2020, that number to date is 36.
South Africa's National Institute for Communicable Diseases reported only one case of the flu out of about 4,000 random surveillance tests performed. Most years the program detects about 1,000 cases.
While Canada's flu season is still in the early days — it typically starts in late August and dies out in April — Evans said all the signs here suggest Canada will report similar numbers in the end.
He said most of the credit goes to the public health measures taken to slow COVID-19 — hand washing, social distancing and face mask-wearing — as well as the dramatic drop in international travel.
Canada is also pushing the flu vaccine harder than ever, and Tam noted "a phenomenal uptake" of the flu shot this season. Although Canadian provinces ordered almost 25 per cent more flu shots than last year, many can't keep up with demand.
— The Canadian Press, Free Press staff