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COVID, the flu and RSV. Navigating the holiday season amidst a wave of illnesses – National

As the holiday season gets underway, the joy of gatherings with family and friends intertwines with the challenges of cold and flu season and rising COVID-19 cases in some provinces, prompting warnings from health experts for Canadians to remain vigilant.

Across Canada, the percentage of weekly positive COVID-19 tests was 18.2 per cent as of Dec. 12, with provinces like Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island seeing the highest spike in cases, according to the latest numbers from the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC).

“As people are spending more time together indoors, there is an increase in the number of COVID cases that are occurring,” Dr. Brian Conway, medical director of the Vancouver Infectious Disease Centre, told Global News. “In terms of the most severe parts of COVID, there are still three to four deaths per hour across the country from COVID, so it really hasn’t gone away.”

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At a national level, the percentage of laboratory tests coming back positive for COVID-19 remains relatively high, PHAC said. But overall, most provinces and territories reported stable trends.

And it’s not just COVID-19 circulating. Other respiratory illnesses, like influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), are making their rounds as well.

From Dec. 3 to Dec. 9, the weekly percentage of tests positive for influenza rose to 13.2 per cent, up from 9.9 per cent from the prior week, PHAC numbers show. Although influenza activity is increasing, PHAC said it is still within expected levels for this time of year.

Click to play video: 'COVID-19: Ontario wastewater signal hits 1-year peak'

COVID-19: Ontario wastewater signal hits 1-year peak

Cases of RSV also continue to increase but are within expected levels for this time of year, with a total of 2,223 detections between Dec. 3 and Dec. 9, according to PHAC’s latest data.

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“The flu kills people, COVID kills a lot of people. Both of these can make you very grievously ill, and RSV can make you grievously ill if you’re very young or very old,” warned Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist and assistant professor in the faculty of information at the University of Toronto.

“And the ones most at risk of the very young and the very old.”

Furness voiced concern that, while any respiratory illness can be harmful, the heightened levels of COVID-19 circulating could lead to more people getting infected and falling ill during holiday festivities, given its considerably higher infection rates.

COVID wastewater rates across the country

The spike in COVID-19 cases varies across the country, but PHAC wastewater surveillance shows which regions have been hit the hardest (as of Dec. 7).

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Wastewater surveillance in British Columbia indicates low rates of COVID-19 in the provinces, while Alberta’s numbers are described as “moderate,” according to the latest data.

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In the prairies, Saskatchewan and Manitoba wastewater surveillance shows moderate to low levels of COVID-19.

In Ontario, wastewater surveillance shows high levels of COVID-19 cases. According to data from Public Health Ontario (PHO), COVID-19 cases are the highest they have been in more than a year and are continuing to climb.

Furness said levels are so high in Ontario that the province is in the middle of another wave.

“The interesting thing about wastewater signals is it shows you that the whole province and even perhaps parts of the city are not synchronized, that the southwest (part of the province) is clearly past it. But the Toronto area is clearly right in the middle of it. And it’s really sizable,” he said.

Quebec is also showing moderate levels of the virus, according to the wastewater surveillance in Montreal.

And on the East Coast, parts of Novia Scotia and P.E.I, are showing moderate to high amounts of COVID-19.

Tips to stay safe at holiday get-togethers

As the holidays approach, PHAC warned in a statement Friday that Canadians can expect further spread of viruses as we travel and socialize more. But precautionary measures can be taken.

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One essential step is to receive vaccinations for influenza, COVID-19, and RSV if you meet the eligibility criteria (for people 60 and older). 

Currently, 14.6 per cent of the population has received the updated XBB.1.5 vaccine, PHAC reported.

Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, told Global News on Monday that vaccine coverage is lower than previous years, and health officials are “concerned about uptake in the highest risk groups,” because of it.

“But I think provinces and territories are trying to make access easier. For example, you can get your COVID-19 vaccine and the flu shot at the same time so you don’t have to go in twice and it’s more available in places like pharmacies,” she said.

If you do become ill with COVID-19, Conway recommends considering the treatment Paxlovid as it may potentially shorten the duration of the illness. This treatment option is available for Canadians over the age of 18 and can be accessed at most pharmacies, Conway added.

Click to play video: 'Health Matters: Flu and RSV cases on the rise'

Health Matters: Flu and RSV cases on the rise

“Stay home if you are sick. And that is going to be so hard for a holiday party,” he said.

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And if you are hosting a Christmas dinner, Furness recommends investing in a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter system to improve air quality in the house. Or even cracking open windows if necessary.

And of course, if worried, to wear a mask at a holiday gathering.

“You can’t always tell (if people are sick) by looking at them. Some people are coughing, but some people aren’t. So it’s a giant game of roulette,” Furness said. “Showing up at a holiday party with a mask is a bit of a buzzkill… but being grievously ill is worse.”

What about travelling on planes?

When it comes to holiday travel by plane, Furness said that the well-designed filtration systems on a flight provide a considerable level of protection, minimizing the spread of germs.

“But it does not immunize you from whoever is sitting right next to you, so you always have that up close problem,” he said. “The problem in airplanes is when they are sitting on the tarmac and the ventilation gets shut down. That is the time to be concerned.”

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This is when having a mask comes in handy, he said.

Conway agrees, adding there should be some precaution on airline travel.

“If you’re on an airplane and you feel a little bit uncomfortable, too many people too close to each other, you hear a bit of a cough, put a mask on,” he said.

— With files from Global News’ Katherine Ward


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