Health Fitness

Is everyone getting sick for the holidays? Health officials urge public to get flu, COVID vaccines

If you or someone you know is battling a cold, the flu or COVID-19, you’re not alone. It’s that time of year when more people are feeling sick and health officials are stressing the importance of preventing the spread of respiratory illnesses.

They’re urging Canadians to get updated flu and COVID-19 vaccines, saying it’s not too late if they want to help protect their own health and that of friends and family over the holidays.

Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé says as bad as overcrowding can be in emergency wards, it could get worse in the coming weeks, due to suspected cases of flu and COVID-19.

One illness after another

Ryan Kirkpatrick, who lives in Whitby, Ont., with his wife and their five-year-old daughter, Louise, says it’s been a tough few months due to one illness after another.

Ryan Kirkpatrick, who lives in Whitby, Ont., holds his daughter, Louise. He says she has COVID-19 for the second time since September. (Family photo)

Currently, Louise has COVID for the second time since school started — and Kirkpatrick says they’re willing to put off a holiday gathering if needed.

“She was sick in September, had an ear infection in October, and is now sick again in December,” he said, noting the family has had “a little bit of everything” despite wearing masks, practising physical distancing and using air purifiers.

Sydney Freeston’s family in Montreal West, which includes her husband, their five-year-old daughter and three-year-old son, has also been hit hard.

WATCH | Canadian COVID-19 vaccination rates have dropped off:

Canadian COVID-19 vaccination rates have dropped off

Fewer people are getting the latest COVID-19 vaccine according to new national data from the Public Health Agency of Canada, but experts say people should treat these vaccinations as essential — especially among those at higher risk of severe outcomes.

“This fall has been a nightmare,” she told CBC News.

In early November, Freeston and her son had “awful colds.” In the middle of the month, her husband got COVID. Four days later, Freeston also had it, but neither child did.

Then, in late-November, her daughter got strep throat and Freeston came down with it a few days later. Earlier this month, her son had a fever and lethargy. A doctor told them it could be RSV (respiratory syncytial virus).

A woman decorates a Christmas tree.
Montrealer Sydney Freeston says illnesses ranging from strep throat to COVID-19 have delayed her preparations for celebrating both Hanukkah and Christmas this year. She says her family has had to skip several family events this fall. (CBC)

“It seems like everyone you know is sick right now, and I think there isn’t a lot of awareness of what you should do if that happens,” said Dr. Kashif Pirzada, a Toronto emergency room physician.

“You do not want to need the hospitals during the holiday season. You’ll be waiting a long time, and you can avoid all of this with just some preventative action now,” he said, noting that includes not going to the big family dinner if you’ve got symptoms.

COVID activity increasing in some regions

The number of cases of influenza and RSV is typically higher at this time of year, but it’s generally within expected levels, according to the latest epidemiology update from the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC).

Meanwhile, COVID-19 cases in Canada were, on average, slightly lower than the previous two weeks. 

However, PHAC said trends vary by region, and at a national level, the percentage of lab tests coming back positive remains relatively high.

Some provinces and territories are seeing increases in COVID-19 activity, “including to high and very high levels in parts of the country,” PHAC said in a statement in mid-December.

“As the holidays approach, we can expect further spread of viruses as we travel and socialize more,” the statement said.

Vaccines part of protection

Carolyn Colijn, an epidemiologist and professor at Simon Fraser University, also spoke about the importance of vaccines.

“I think there may be a presumption that vaccines just don’t prevent transmission, and that’s not quite right,” she said. “Even though that protection is not perfect, [and] it’s not going to last forever, it is an important part of reducing infection.”

WATCH | As respiratory viruses take a toll, stay clear of gatherings if sick, experts say:

Health officials warn of holiday surge of respiratory illnesses

Health Canada says cases of respiratory illnesses have been on the rise since mid-November across Canada. In Quebec, officials are asking people without urgent illness to avoid the emergency room as many operate above capacity.

She said if someone has just had COVID, now may not be the optimal time to get vaccinated, so they could wait a few months. In that case, they should avoid going to work or socializing if they are symptomatic with something. 

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix on Wednesday said people in his province should go register online and get vaccinated right away.

“It’s not just for you,” he said. “You may say, ‘I’m healthy. I play field hockey. I had COVID before and it didn’t effect me that much.’ It’s not just you. It’s the people you love, the people you know and the people you don’t know.”

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