There have been 30,000 tests for the influenza virus completed in B.C. up to the first week of January 2021, with no cases of infection from community transmission, the B.C. Centre for Disease Control reports.
Last winter at this time there were 19 influenza outbreaks reported in B.C. long-term care facilities, where the seasonal respiratory virus can be fatal. This year there are no reported cases in care homes, many of which have dealt instead with COVID-19 infections.
Tests for influenza have accompanied COVID-19 tests as health care staff strive to protect vulnerable elderly people.
In its latest influenza surveillance bulletin, the BCCDC says testing up to Jan. 9 has had seven positive results in 30,000 tests, showing 12 different strains of seasonal influenza. But each of the seven people had received the live attenuated influenza vaccine, “suggesting vaccine-type rather than wild-type virus.”
By contrast, for the same week 40 to week 1 period of the past five seasons, there were on average 7,059 tests conducted and 1,005 influenza detections per season. Average week 1 influenza positivity for the past five seasons was 32 per cent; in week 1 this season, the positivity was zero per cent.
“Overall, there remains no indication of influenza virus circulation in B.C.,” the BCCDC report says. “Elsewhere in the northern hemisphere, influenza virus detection remains exceptionally low.”
This same trend has been observed in other countries, and health experts are crediting the measures taken to combat COVID-19 — including mask wearing, physical distancing, and increased personal hygiene — with having a huge impact on curbing the spread of common respiratory illnesses such as the flu.
Another factor is restrictions on international travel. Flu typically travels around the world from one country’s winter season to another’s, but with comparatively few people travelling, the flu virus has been unable to spread as normal.
A push toward more flu vaccinations this season probably played a part as well. Health authorities around the world, fearing that a double-whammy of influenza and COVID-19 could overwhelm hospitals, encouraged people to get vaccinated against the flu as a precaution, and many countries saw a marked increase in the number of vaccinations administered.
The B.C. government secured an extra 450,000 influenza vaccine doses last fall as part of its preparations for COVID-19, bringing the total to two million doses. Influenza typically drives an increase in hospital admissions each fall and winter, peaking at about 15 per cent of hospital admissions by February.
Before Christmas, Health Minister Adrian Dix said demand for the influenza vaccine was exceptionally high, with a million doses delivered. In November, there were reports of clinics and pharmacies in B.C. running short as their available supplies were dispensed at no charge.
With files from Barbara Roden