Statement from the Chief Public Health Officer of Canada on Respiratory Illness Season


December 14, 2023 | Ottawa, ON | Public Health Agency of Canada

Respiratory illness season is well underway in Canada. While respiratory infections can occur year-round, it is common to see a significant increase in the fall and winter months. For some areas where the health care system is currently at capacity, these elevated or increasing levels of respiratory illness are already posing significant challenges to hospitals. As a result, it is especially important that we all take steps to protect ourselves and our families at this time of year, including during the holiday season.

The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) continues to assess the levels of respiratory viruses across Canada and provides weekly national updates. While there is variability across the country, multiple viruses, including influenza (flu), respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 are circulating at the same time. On November 25, 2023, PHAC indicated that flu season in Canada had officially begun. As of the week ending December 2, 2023, RSV and flu activity continued to increase in Canada but remained within expected levels for this time of year.

For COVID-19, at a national level, the percent of laboratory tests coming back positive remains relatively high. Additionally, some provinces and territories are seeing increases in COVID-19 activity, including to high and very high levels in parts of the country. However, trends in a number of indicators, including wastewater surveillance, vary by region. It is important for people in Canada to consult their local public health authorities for the most up to date information on respiratory virus activity in their region.

As the holidays approach, we can expect further spread of viruses as we travel and socialize more. I encourage everyone to take action to keep yourself and your loved ones healthy. If you haven't already done so, now is a good time to get your updated flu and COVID-19 vaccines. Both vaccines can be given at the same time. Health Canada has now authorized three XBB.1.5 COVID-19 vaccines, which better target new sub-variants of the virus. We can expect new COVID-19 variants to continue to emerge, like the currently circulating BA.2.86 variant which is growing in Canada and internationally. While we are continuing to learn more about this variant, and the JN.1 sub-lineage, early evidence suggests that the updated XBB.1.5 vaccines provide protection against these latest circulating strains.

Vaccination is particularly important for those at increased risk of severe illness due to COVID-19 or influenza, such as adults 65 years of age and over. As of December 3, 2023, approximately 41.3% of adults in Canada 65 years of age and older have received the updated COVID-19 vaccine (XBB.1.5). Others at increased risk include individuals who are pregnant, Indigenous populations, those with underlying medical conditions, and for influenza only, children 6 months to under the age of 5 years.

In addition to vaccination, the use of personal protective measures can help reduce your risk of getting or spreading respiratory infectious diseases. These measures include properly wearing a high quality, well-fitting respirator or mask in indoor public places, regular hand hygiene and improving indoor ventilation. It is also important to stay home if you do get sick to avoid spreading infections. Just like layering up to protect ourselves against the Canadian winter, using multiple layers of protection is the most effective way to reduce the risk of infection during respiratory illness season.

Taking steps to prevent illness not only helps to keep you and your loved ones healthy, but can reduce hospitalizations due to respiratory illness, which decreases pressure on our health care system.

Let's all do our part to keep ourselves and communities healthier this holiday season.


Media Relations
Public Health Agency of Canada

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