Dr. DAVID WILLIAMS, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health
Few things are as unpredictable each year as flu season. Will it be a severe season, or will it be mild? Will the vaccine match the circulating strains? Regardless, flu season typically means more people visiting emergency rooms across the province. The number of Ontarians who will be affected by the flu each year varies. Last year there were more than 11,000 lab confirmed cases of the flu, and it’s likely that number is much higher because not everyone who has it will see a doctor and be tested.
As Ontario’s health care system works to address capacity-related challenges, the government is working with its health care partners to be prepared for all potential scenarios during flu season. A key piece of this plan in Ontario is the annual flu shot program. As part of this program the vaccine is available for free to all Ontarians 6 months of age and older who live, work or attend school in the province. The vaccine is the best defense against the flu.
The flu shot goes a long way to prevent the flu, in addition to other preventive behaviours like washing your hands, covering your cough/sneeze and staying home if you’re sick.
Dealing with the flu season goes beyond the flu shot. Many don’t see the preparations that are in place to help Ontario deal with a particularly severe flu season.
Surveillance and monitoring of the magnitude of the flu season and sharing this information is key to ensure responsiveness. For example, weekly teleconferences are scheduled to share information about the circulating influenza strains and severity. Antiviral medications are provided to those who are most vulnerable, including people in long-term care homes and hospitals when they get the flu or are in an outbreak. Ventilators are stockpiled and are made available for hospitals that run out of machines that keep the critically ill breathing. Organizations such as TeleHealth provide alternatives to going to the ER for those who want timely advice from a health care professional. These are just some of the things that are in place to help the health care system deal with influenza.
Over the past several years, only about one third of Ontarians have gotten the flu shot. If our goal is to reduce the impact of influenza on emergency rooms and reduce hallway health care, we all need to do our part and get the flu shot.