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Record number of hospitalizations as COVID and flu season peaks

Health Minister Adrian Dix and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said cases of Influenza A and RSV have been “steadily increasing over the last few weeks”
Health Minister Adrian Dix and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry at a respiratory illness season update in December. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

B.C. broke hospitalization records this week with 10,435 people in ­hospital as COVID and flu season peaks.

Health Minister Adrian Dix said at a respiratory-illness update in ­Vancouver on Wednesday that the uptick was driven in part by ­respiratory illnesses. The previous record was 10,260 set on Jan. 4 last year.

Dix and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said cases of Influenza A and respiratory syncytial virus, called RSV, have been “steadily increasing over the last few weeks.”

“We’re not out of the woods yet and we will continue to see high rates of influenza and RSV for the next few weeks,” said Henry.

COVID-19 cases were declining but increased over the holidays, particularly in adults, she said.

As of last week, 219 people were in hospital with COVID and 26 people were in intensive care, she said. There were also 11 COVID outbreaks in long-term care facilities over the last couple of weeks. (In recent weeks there were 24 influenza outbreaks in long-term care homes, including 13 in the last week of December.)

Henry noted that while respiratory illness is returning to a typical pre-pandemic seasonal pattern, it will be a while yet before the future pattern of COVID-19 is clear.

She said 83 per cent of the province’s population has likely been infected with COVID at some point — many may not have realized it due to being vaccinated — and almost everybody has some degree of immunity.

Hybrid immunity from both infection and vaccination gives the most lasting protection, “particularly against severe outcomes,” said Henry, who expressed concern that only half of eligible people age 80 and older have had the updated vaccine.

Henry also noted that influenza has contributed to the deaths of three children in B.C. “This is so sad and tragic.”

The children from different parts of the province — one under the age of 5 and two age five to 10 — were not immunized and all three tested positive for influenza and had secondary bacterial infections that led to their deaths, she said.

Henry said the province is seeing increased severe bacterial infections — Invasive Group A Streptococcus— in all age groups, “so that’s a concern to us.” Rates of such infections are up around the world, she said.

Any respiratory virus can cause an inflammation in the lungs that makes a person more susceptible to having bacterial infections, she said.

“It is so important to reiterate that most children with influenza, with other virus symptoms, will recover at home and won’t have the need of medical intervention but a secondary bacterial infection can occur.”

Bacterial infections, which can be treated with antibiotics, can cause a patient to deteriorate rapidly, and thus need close attention, Henry said. “Not only influenza, but RSV and COVID … all of these infections can lead to bacterial infections.”

Caregivers should monitor children and seek care quickly if they experience any symptoms of concern, including difficulty breathing, fever that lasts longer than five days, or fever in a child under three months of age, Henry said.

She said parents can call their care providers, call 811 to speak to a nurse or go to the ER to receive immediate care for severe symptoms.

She noted that as of Tuesday, only about 17 per cent of eligible children in B.C. had their updated influenza vaccine this year. “It’s not too late to get that added protection against influenza, which can cause the most severe respiratory illness for children.”

Over the past six weeks, Henry said, there’s been an increase in ER visits, including many for acute respiratory infections, mostly driven by infants to youth age up to 14.

Dix noted that 1.5 million people in B.C. have had their flu shots and almost 1.4 have had the updated COVID shot this year, which he called “almost certainly” the best rate in North America, although he noted that the rate lags behind last year’s.

Henry and Dix encouraged more people to get their updated COVID-19 vaccine and influenza vaccines, noting thousands of appointments are available in pharmacies around the province.

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