Niagara healthcare workers lag behind their Ontario colleagues when it comes to getting the flu shot, a statistic that could create an increasingly serious crisis in Niagara if a second wave of COVID-19 was occurring in the fall and winter, The Standard learned.
On average, about 73 percent of long-term care workers and 54 percent of acute health care workers get the flu shot each year in Ontario. That compares to 55 percent of long-term care workers and only 35 percent of acute care workers in Niagara, according to Niagara Public Health data.
“Niagara is definitely behind the rest of the province,” said Dr. Mustafa Hirji, Acting Niagara Medical Officer of Health.
“It is certainly a source of concern. We are talking about COVID-19 which is overwhelming our health system. Well, the flu is about to break it. “
Each year, the flu virus causes a sharp increase in hospitalizations, said Lynn Guerriero, president of Niagara Health, including more patients in the intensive care unit.
Hirji said that while many people consider the flu to be not serious, it can be fatal for the most vulnerable, as is COVID-19. During the 2017-2018 flu season, approximately 60 Niagara residents died from respiratory illnesses.
To date, at least 64 Niagara residents with COVID-19 have died, many of whom are elderly.
“I’m not a public health expert, but I have to believe that if more people get the flu shot, it will help tremendously,” said Guerriero.
The concern of health leaders, including Hirji and Guerriero, is that local hospitals will not be able to effectively manage a second surge of COVID-19 cases alongside the typical wave of flu patients.
Although the annual flu shot is not as effective as the measles vaccine, it can still have a dramatic impact on the spread of the flu virus, said Hirji.
Even if a flu shot was only 50% effective, said Hirji, that means that half of the people who fell ill will not.
“It also means that in the remaining 50%, many will only suffer from a mild illness,” he said. “It would absolutely have a positive impact.”
The vaccine would be a useful tool to limit the impact of the flu this winter, said Hirji, and would allow the hospital to have more resources to fight a new wave of COVID-19. However, Niagara Public Health has struggled to achieve widespread use of the flu vaccine in the region despite annual information campaigns.
Although Niagara healthcare workers’ vaccination rates are lower than the provincial average, the general public’s vaccination rate is even lower. Hirji said about 20% of Niagara residents receive the annual vaccine, which is available in early fall.
“We’re going to push the vaccine as aggressively as possible, but I’m not sure what kind of impact it will have,” Hirji said. “We have been trying to get this message out for years. We have published opinion pieces. We made a video last year. But that didn’t really get more people to get the vaccine. “
Hirji said one of the lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic is that healthcare workers can bring contagious disease into long-term care and nursing homes, where it can spread quickly.
Currently, outbreaks of respiratory disease in long-term care homes and retirement homes are common during flu season, and the fact that few staff receive the vaccine exacerbates the risk.
He added that not all health care facilities are the same. Some facilities have a vaccination rate close to 100%, while others are as low as 35%.
In other facilities, such as Niagara Health Hospitals, vaccines are brought to staff so they do not have to go elsewhere to get vaccinated. But the vaccine is not mandatory, and health workers, like the general public, can choose not to be vaccinated.
Widespread use of vaccines can create collective immunity – if enough people are vaccinated, the disease can no longer spread effectively. Measles, whooping cough, polio and other diseases have been effectively controlled due to herd immunity, which also protects those who cannot get vaccinated for medical reasons.
But the number of people vaccinated must be high. In the case of measles, for example, more than 90% of the population needs to be vaccinated to obtain collective immunity.
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Since the influenza vaccine is not as effective as the measles vaccine – it must also be reformulated annually to combat the specific strain of influenza circulating – it is not known how many people would need it to achieve immunity. collective, Hirji said.
But then, he says, aiming for this goal is not realistic at the moment.
“The number of people who get the vaccine is so low that I don’t even think about herd immunity when it comes to the flu,” he said. “I would be happy to see a significant increase in the numbers.”