PAUL CHIASSON / THE CANADIAN PRESS
It seemed odd Health Minister Danielle McCann would emphasize the importance of the annual flu vaccination campaign on Tuesday, months before the seasonal influenza virus sweeps through Quebec and the rest of Canada.
But McCann suggested this year’s flu shots will likely be more important than ever in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. The thinking is that the coronavirus will continue to circulate in Quebec in the months to come, causing sporadic outbreaks in the community and in hospitals.
The worst-case scenario is the province would be hit with a second wave of COVID-19 as big or even bigger than the first wave, which now appears to be subsiding. If a second wave occurs in the midst of flu season — with many Quebecers suffering from the flu virus and the coronavirus at the same time — the impact could be catastrophic.
“It is the priority of the network currently to prepare for the second wave,” McCann said. “Indeed, we must also prepare for influenza vaccination.”
However, the free flu shots under the government’s annual campaign are not available to all Quebecers. It’s the so-called vulnerable groups who get those shots: residents of long-term care centres and those with chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease, among other individuals.
Normally, there’s no problem with such a targeted vaccination campaign. But since there’s still no vaccine to protect against COVID-19 or drugs to cure it, experts are recommending that Quebec make its flu vaccination campaign truly universal this year.
The rationale behind this strategy is that flu shots would probably reduce the number of people showing up coughing in emergency rooms — a huge problem that contributes to ER overcrowding during the flu season that runs from November until the end of April.
Initially, at least, it’s hard to tell the difference between flu and COVID-19 symptoms. Thus, universal flu vaccination would decrease the number of people seeking COVID-19 tests only to learn that they’ve tested negative for the pandemic illness.
And finally, flu shots would lessen the likelihood of people suffering from co-infections of the two viruses, which might put some at even greater risk of severe complications and death.
“Every year when we have the flu season, look at the emergency rooms. They’re a disaster,” Dr. Karl Weiss, president of the Association des médecins microbiologistes-infectiologues du Québec, said in an interview.
“So imagine if we get the flu, and on top of this, we get a second wave of COVID-19. Imagine the two together. I don’t think the system has the depth and capability to sustain something like this.”
There are some arguments against this strategy. We might face a mild flu season in the fall. More people are wearing face coverings and maintaining physical distancing than ever before — factors that would likely slow down the transmission of the flu virus. In some years, the flu vaccine is not a good match and protects few individuals.
Nonetheless, Weiss argues that Quebec cannot afford to take any more chances, especially given how the coronavirus has killed more than 5,000 people here — a death toll that is considerably greater than all other provinces combined.
“Listen, flu vaccines are very cheap,” Weiss said. “Usually they cost the government almost nothing. That’s why the government is paying for it. They’re not bad vaccines. So it’s worth it to try to immunize everybody to lower the impact of the flu.”
So will the government proceed with such a plan? A spokesperson for the health ministry said this week the government has asked for an opinion on the matter from its expert Comité sur l’immunisation du Québec. Let’s hope the committee recommends free flu shots for everyone.
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