Remarks from the Chief Public Health Officer, December 14, 2022
December 14 2022 | Ottawa, ON | Public Health Agency of Canada
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to create stress and anxiety for many Canadians, particularly those who do not have ready access to their regular support networks. Through the Wellness Together Canada online portal, people of all ages across the country can access immediate, free and confidential mental health and substance use supports, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. PocketWell, a free companion app to the WTC online portal, provides another way to help Canadians access online mental health and substance use resources, and measure and monitor aspects of their mental well-being.
Nationally, SARS-CoV-2, influenza, respiratory syncytial virus – or RSV - and other respiratory viruses continue to cause significant levels of infection in our population. Very young and elderly people, as well as those with pre-existing medical conditions, continue to be at highest risk for serious illness. While increases in respiratory virus-related illness are expected at this time of year, co-circulation of these viruses is causing significant strain on our health care systems.
Surveillance indicators, including clinical and wastewater testing, show that SARS-CoV-2 is still circulating across the country and while we are past the peak of the last COVID-19 resurgence, it is too soon to let our guard down. In Canada, variations in population level of immunity and current global trends suggest that an uptick in COVID-19 could occur in the New Year. In recent weeks, genetic sequencing data on SARS-CoV-2 viruses shows continuing increases in immune evasive variants, notably BQ.1 and BQ1.1, while the previously dominant BA.5 lineage variants are declining. With the increased prominence of these variants in Canada, at a minimum we could see a slower decline and higher plateaus in the number of infections as well as hospital admissions in Canada, as this respiratory virus season plays out.
In terms of the other respiratory viruses circulating in Canada, RSV activity has levelled off nationally and infections are declining in some jurisdictions. This means activity levels are now within the expected range for this time of year. In contrast, influenza is continuing to trend well above expected levels for this time of year, but this varies across regions.
Most worrisome is the increase in influenza-related hospitalisations. The IMPACT network, which provides data on paediatric hospitalizations due to influenza, has noted sharp increases in multiple sites across the country. These data also suggest a shift to a higher proportion of hospitalized cases occurring in the 10-16 year age group compared to seasons prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the highest cumulative hospitalization rates for influenza continue to be among children under 5 years of age. Currently, the weekly number of pediatric hospitalizations being reported is above levels typically seen at the peak of the influenza season. Tragically, due to this high number of paediatric cases we are also seeing a higher than usual number of ICU admissions and deaths due to influenza in children.
To date, laboratory data indicate that this year’s influenza vaccine is a good match to circulating strains and therefore is likely to help protect against serious influenza disease. Influenza vaccines take about 2 weeks to provide optimal protection, so as we rapidly approach the holidays, now is the time to get vaccinated if you have not already done so. Flu shots are available across Canada and can be given to adults, teenagers and children as young as 6 months of age.
The flu shot can also be given at the same time as COVID-19 vaccines. There are now more options for COVID-19 booster doses for children 5 to 11 years of age, with the recent approval of a bivalent vaccine for this age group. If it’s been 6 months or more since your last COVID-19 vaccine dose or COVID-19 infection, getting vaccinated now will boost your level of protection going into the holiday season.
Staying up to date with recommended vaccines provides an important foundation of protection. The results of the first population-based survey of adults across Canada, conducted between April and August of this year, showed that close to 15 % of those with a confirmed or suspected COVID-19 infection experienced longer-term symptoms, with almost half of these individuals experiencing symptoms for a year or longer. While ongoing studies are needed, there is emerging evidence that the risk of developing post COVID-19 condition is reduced if you have received 2 or more doses of COVID-19 vaccine prior to infection.
As we move indoors and gather to celebrate the holiday season, I encourage you to build on the foundation that vaccination provides by taking additional personal protective measures. Together these measures can provide very good protection against COVID-19, as well as many other respiratory infections we may encounter.
When planning a holiday gathering consider: the potential impact of respiratory illnesses on your health and social plans, the health status and risk factors of people you’re gathering with, and the places you’ll be gathering in. Properly wearing a well-fitted and well-constructed face mask in indoor public spaces or crowded settings, and taking steps to get the best ventilation possible are layers of protection that can reduce everyone’s risk.
Our health care systems continue to be challenged by the additional burden of all respiratory viruses this time of year. The impact, particularly on children’s hospitals has already been overwhelming in many parts of the country. This holiday season let’s all do the best we can to make our wishes for health and happiness come true by taking actions to protect ourselves and others from respiratory viruses.
Read my backgrounder to access COVID-19 Information and Resources, including information on vaccination and ways to reduce your risk of infection and spreading the virus to others.
Public Health Agency of Canada
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