Over the past few weeks, seasonal respiratory illnesses such as Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), influenza and colds have made an early return to the region, along with the continued COVID-19 pandemic. Eastern Ontario Health Unit (EOHU) Medical Officer of Health Dr. Paul Roumeliotis has offered expert explanation and instructions on the situation.
The situation has led to an alarming number of hospitalizations, and local hospitals are at 100 per cent capacity. Pediatric Intensive Care Units in the area are also overwhelmed, especially with young children under five years old with severe cases of RSV and the flu.
According to Roumeliotis, half of the hospitalizations for children are due to the flu, and the other half are due to RSV.
“COVID is not overwhelming our health care system,” Roumeliotis said.
However, the combination of it and the other respiratory viruses is placing pressure on the system. Roumeliotis said there is currently low to moderate COVID-19 activity in the region – showing itself in a series of ripples in cases, rather than the waves which characterized the first year of the pandemic.
RSV is the virus which causes the common cold. Usually, it and the flu make their debut during the Christmas season. However, they showed up early this year, in late October.
Hopeful situation will improve
Roumeliotis is hopeful the situation will begin to improve. He explained how the respiratory virus situation in Australia worsened earlier than usual before subsiding. Australia is used as a precedent because its winter season occurs when it is summer in Canada. Unlike adults with RSV, who usually just get a cold, children with RSV often develop other serious symptoms, such a bronchiolitis and serious difficulty breathing.
“Most of the cases we’re seeing are children,” Roumeliotis said.
He added the increase in hospital emergency visits is compounding the already difficult situation facing hospitals who do not have enough physicians and nurses to meet staffing needs.
The respiratory virus situation has led Roumeliotis to issue a series of requests to the public to reduce the spread of respiratory illnesses and protect the most vulnerable members of the population – most often children and the elderly – and to reduce the burden on hospitals. One is to wear a mask when out in public, or if you have respiratory virus symptoms.
“It’s not just for COVID,” Roumeliotis said.
Viruses have no boundaries
The request to wear a mask is not an official mandate, like those issued during the worst of COVID-19 in 2020 and 2021. Roumeliotis said if the current combination of respiratory illnesses threatened the health care system with collapse, then a mask mandate would be issued. He said such a mandate would likely be issued for across the province of Ontario, rather than just the EOHU’s territory.
“Viruses have no boundaries,” Roumeliotis commented.
Other ways to prevent the spread of respiratory viruses include washing your hands frequently and correctly, or using hand sanitizer when soap and water are not available, disinfecting surfaces often, and screening yourself daily, especially before attending work, childcare or school.
Getting a seasonal flu shot and staying up to date on COVID-19 vaccinations reduces the severity of respiratory illness, and both are available to every Ontario resident aged six months and older.
Vaccinations rates low in EOHU region
Roumeliotis said fewer residents are taking advantage of the available vaccinations.
“We’re low on vaccines (rates) for flu. We’re low on boosters for COVID,” he said.
The rates for COVID-19 boosters are lowest among younger adults. Using the most recent statistics, Roumeliotis said less than 50 per cent of EOHU residents under age 40 have received a third COVID-19 booster. A total of 43 per cent of residents under age 30 have received the third booster, and 33 per cent of those aged 18 to 29 have had the third booster.
Roumeliotis acknowledged many people have become tired of the pandemic after nearly three years, or they think it is over, or have been influenced by disinformation about it.
As additional advice, keeping children, and babies especially, away from crowds, will also help minimize the risk of infection. Most importantly, anyone feeling sick, should stay home. Minor symptoms for one person could result in severe illness or hospitalization for someone more vulnerable.
Shortage of children’s medication
Fever reduction medications for children, such as Tylenol (acetaminophen), have been in short supply lately in Canada. Health Canada and retail pharmacies are addressing the situation. Roumeliotis emphasized how medications such as Tylenol only treat the symptoms, and not the virus.
“It’s just to make the child more comfortable and bring the fever down,” he noted.
A fever is a normal part of a virus, Roumeliotis said. However, if an infant aged under three months has a fever, or a child has a fever for more than three or four days, medical attention should be sought.
“You have to look at the combination of signs,” Roumeliotis remarked.
Pharmacists are able to compound adult fever medications into smaller doses for children. Roumeliotis said other alternatives are available, such as giving the child a lukewarm bath, or dressing them in lighter clothing.
For adults, treatments for severe illness from COVID-19 (Paxlovid) or the flu (Tamiflu) are available if they are at risk of severe illness.
Roumeliotis is looking to businesses, agencies, and organizations in our community to show leadership and take the appropriate actions to reduce the spread of respiratory illnesses.
Children’s hospital in Newfoundland and Labrador is cancelling some surgeries
A children’s hospital in the capital of Newfoundland and Labrador is cancelling some surgeries and appointments starting Monday.
Health officials say it’s due to a high level of respiratory illness.
It is unclear how many surgeries and appointments at Janeway Children’s Health and Rehabilitation Centre in St. John‘s will be affected.
Residents who are not experiencing a medical emergency are being asked to avoid visiting an emergency department.
Older adults amongst the most susceptible to RSV
TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — The risk of Respiratory Syncytial Virus, also known as RSV, typically flies under the radar when it comes to older adults.
With 10 times the amount of older adults being hospitalized for RSV than in previous years, understanding the risk is important for those who are more susceptible.
“RSV in older adults starts out with the same symptoms as younger adults. With common cold-like symptoms- nasal congestion, sniffles, low-grade temperature, sore throat, dry cough, tiredness. These symptoms will last for a few days,” Mary Derby, Nurse Manager at Pima County Health Department explained.
“However, an older adult or an adult with chronic medical conditions such as heart and lung disease- they can experience more serious symptoms, such as getting a high fever, dehydration, and real difficulty breathing.”
Derby says if these symptoms lead to extreme chest pain, loss of color in the face, or struggle to breathe- seek medical attention immediately.
It is also important for those assisting an older adult to be aware of the risk imposed on those more susceptible.
“If you’re caring for older adults, please wash your hands frequently. Watch for your own symptoms and stay away if you’re experiencing symptoms. Consider wearing a mask to protect that older adult, because these older adults do need that protection… Take it seriously,” Derby emphasized.
Upward 6,000 to 10,000 older adults die each year from RSV.
As we make our way through the holidays, be sure to stay up to date with COVID-19 and Influenza vaccines, stay home if you are not feeling well, wash your hands often and for those at higher risk, wear a fitted mask around others.
AIDS day walk in North Battleford aims to `banish that stigma’
By Julia Peterson
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
On World AIDS Day, advocates in the Battlefords gathered to raise awareness about how the virus affects people in their community, and how people can get help and treatment, if they need it.
“HIV is completely preventable in today’s society, with all the advances in medication,” said Battle River Treaty 6 Health Centre’s HIV project coordinator, Cymric Leask. “But due to a lot of intersecting factors, especially due to COVID in the past couple of years, our HIV numbers have skyrocketed.”
In 2021, more than 200 new cases of HIV were diagnosed in the province, even while testing, treatment and outreach were reduced during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Saskatchewan has the highest rate of new HIV infections in Canada, and has had the highest annual rate in the country for more than a decade.
The proportion of new HIV cases in rural areas is rising, too.
“Here up north, there are such large barriers to access to care,” said Leask. “We do have some great resources here in North Battleford but it’s still very hard to access the proper care for HIV.”
For example, getting started on HIV medication requires a visit with a communicable disease doctor, but there is no communicable disease doctor based in the Battlefords. Instead, that doctor visits the community only once every four months.
Another barrier Leask has found is that many people still have an outdated understanding of what HIV is, who is at risk and how treatment works.
“Especially here in rural areas, it’s stigmatized as something that only affects gay or bisexual men, men who have sex with men,” Leask said.
Today in Saskatchewan, men and women are diagnosed with HIV at almost equal rates, and two thirds of new cases are passed through injection drug use.
Treatments are much easier to manage than they used to be; some only involve taking one pill a day.
But the enduring stigma around HIV makes it harder for people to find community and support.
“People don’t talk about it,” said Jackie Kennedy, executive director of the Battlefords Indian and Metis Friendship Centre. “I think they’re afraid to. A lot of people don’t disclose that information (about their HIV status) because they are afraid to be judged.”
As more people continue to be diagnosed with HIV in Saskatchewan every year, groups and organizations in the Battlefords are working hard to make it easier for people to get testing, treatment, information and harm reduction supplies.
“We want to banish that stigma of how it used to be,” said Leask. “It’s not like that anymore.”
Julia Peterson is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter with THE STARPHOENIX
The LJI program is federally funded.
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