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Expert: Hand-washing, distancing and masking have seriously blunted the flu season

Health experts say public health guidelines are knocking down the flu but the pandemic is still a threat

While it might be too early to judge the impact that influenza is having in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, early indications are that the annual flu season in Canada has been significantly blunted.  

That was one of the key revelations made during a joint webinar hosted Wednesday by Laurentian University and Science North as part of their regular Let's Talk About COVID-19 series on social media.   

The latest teleconference featured physiology professor David MacLean, division of medical sciences at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine; Meghan McCue, Ph.D. Candidate in the Biomolecular Sciences at Laurentian University, and Amy Henson, Staff Scientist at Science North.

MacLean commented on the flu season in response to a question from Henson on whether public health precautions — handwashing, physical distancing and masking — are making any sort of a difference. The short answer, Maclean said, is absolutely.

"We are having a very blunted flu season. And that's not surprising," Maclean told the webinar.

He said the trend was first noticed in Australia and other southern hemisphere countries where the current influenza strain occurred in mid-2020.

"In Canada for example, in the national flu report, one of the crazy things I read, has just shown that in the first week of November (this year), we did not have one hospitalized case of influenza in any province or territory. We had 60 at this time last year," MacLean said. 

He added that at this time last year, in the first week of November 2019, Canada reported 711 confirmed cases of influenza. This year, said MacLean, there have been 17 cases reported in the first week of November.  

The Health Canada flu report confirmed MacLean's statement. 

"To date this season, 17 influenza detections have been reported, which is significantly lower than the past six seasons where an average of 818 influenza detections were reported between weeks 35-45," reads the report.

MacLean said people taking normal public health precautions are among the key reasons for that low number. Another reason he said is the significant decrease in international travel in the past eight months. 

MacLean said despite the drop off in flu cases, it doesn't mean people should stop taking precautions. MacLean said it is absolutely a mistake to compare the annual flu outbreak to the COVID-19 pandemic. He said it is vital to continue following the precautions. 

He said the flu is something most people can cope with. He said COVID-19 can kill people. 

"I'm sure we've all seen how bad it is in the U.S. and it is really tragic for them and this mass of misinformation is killing people," said MacLean. 

"Really, simply, masks, social distancing and hand-washing works."

He said that was proven during the first wave of the pandemic and it is the only way for Canadians to stay healthy until a vaccine is available.

Another part of the discussion addressed how the coronavirus affects different age groups. Meghan McCue commented that even though the coronavirus seems to take a greater toll on older people, it does not mean that younger people are immune.

"That is not a hard and fast rule and it doesn't mean that simply because you're young and you're healthy that you're completely immune to the virus and that you won't have a completely adverse response to it," said McCue.

"I think in Manitoba right now there are 30 people under the age of 50 who are hospitalized with COVID. They're in a really bad outbreak," McCue said.

"It can affect anyone and can affect individuals very differently," she added.

The other important aspect is that medical science does not have enough long-term knowledge about COVID-19, she said. No one knows if having COVID-19 will affect your health in the future. 

"So getting a really severe case when you're an adolescent, a teenager or in your twenties, you might recover from it. But we don't know how it is going to affect you and your health throughout your lifespan.”

In closing the teleconference, MacLean and McCue both offered some closing thoughts. 

"Follow the public health guidelines," said McCue. "Wear your mask, wash your hands, limit your outings, limit your social interactions and play your part in limiting the spread."

MacLean urged the audience to "educate yourself" by checking proper resources such as the CDC website. 

He warned people not to rely on social media because there is far too much misinformation which Maclean said is "dangerous" and has caused “too much damage.”

MacLean added that people should not become complacent about practising every day public health precautions.


About the Author: Len Gillis, local journalism initiative reporter

Len Gillis is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter at Sudbury.com covering health care in northeastern Ontario and the COVID-19 pandemic.
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