Manitoba finally got its first lab-confirmed case of the flu this season. But so far, efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 — including wearing masks and social distancing — appear to be keeping influenza at bay.
It’s also saving hospitals from utter collapse.
Manitoba Health reported the first lab-confirmed case of the flu this week — an Influenza B case detected in the second week of December. It didn’t require hospitalization. It's the only confirmed case so far this season.
Manitoba administered 406,799 doses of the influenza vaccine so far this year, almost 29 per cent of the population.
As predicted, measures taken to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 are helping mitigate the spread of influenza. Both viruses are transmitted in similar ways. Any steps taken to reduce the spread of one helps prevent the other. That’s what happened in the southern hemisphere earlier this year, where influenza was almost non-existent.
A small uptick in the number of people getting the flu shot this year may have helped. Manitoba administered 406,799 doses of the influenza vaccine so far this year, almost 29 per cent of the population. At this time last year, 21.4 per cent of Manitobans were inoculated. (If you didn't get yours yet, there are still over 100,000 doses available).
Flu season is normally well underway in Manitoba at this time of year. By Dec. 28 last year, there were already 275 lab-confirmed cases of influenza and 35 hospitalizations.
In a bad flu year, there can be more than 500 hospitalizations over a period of a few months.
It’s hard to imagine how hospitals would cope if there were no restrictions in place to mitigate the spread of COVID–19 and influenza.
That would be catastrophic this year, with hospitals already admitting close to 200 COVID-19 patients per week.
As of Wednesday, there were 359 COVID-19 patients in hospital, including 44 in ICU (both infectious and non-infectious patients). ICUs were operating at 165 per cent capacity this week compared to pre-pandemic levels. Not only are hospitals full, they’re treating acutely ill patients, many of whom remain in ICU for weeks.
It’s hard to imagine how hospitals would cope if there were no restrictions in place to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and influenza. The dual impact of hundreds of COVID-19 and flu patients admitted to hospital per week would make it almost impossible to maintain normal levels of patient care.
The near-elimination of the flu this year has given hospitals some breathing room. Winnipeg hospitals normally see over 150 patients a day with respiratory illnesses at this time of year. During the second week of December, the daily average was 85. That’s helped free up capacity for COVID-19 patients.
The province has not done well managing this virus. But there are signs the situation is improving.
All this could change if Manitobans let their guard down even slightly over the holidays. Polls have shown some Manitobans plan to socialize outside their households over the holidays. There is evidence many are travelling to other provinces. On Wednesday, there were 22 flights in and out of Winnipeg to and from western provinces, including Alberta, which had the highest per capita cases of COVID-19 in the country over the past seven days. (Manitoba has still refused to reinstate the 14-day self-isolation rule with western provinces).
Whatever gains Manitoba has made since it went into code-red lockdown Nov. 12 could all be for naught if travellers don’t self-isolate and people break the law by socializing outside their households. Even scaled-down Christmas dinners and reduced holiday celebrations could easily push numbers back up — and possibly trigger a flu outbreak.
It wouldn’t take much.
Not only would that push hospital capacity to the brink again (and beyond), it would likely result in hundreds of additional deaths. Over the past week alone, COVID-19 has claimed the lives of 82 Manitobans, including 15 Wednesday.
Manitoba has the second highest per capita deaths from COVID-19 in Canada. The province has not done well managing this virus. But there are signs the situation is improving. Daily case numbers have come down and the province's test positivity rate has started to decline.
There's an opportunity to keep that going. Let’s not make it worse again.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.