British Columbia health officials are urging parents to get their children vaccinated against the flu this week as influenza, COVID-19 and other respiratory viruses send an overwhelming number of children to hospital.
A more severe strain of Influenza A is causing serious and some fatal illness, including secondary bacterial infections like pneumonia and meningitis, particularly among kids under five, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said Monday.
The flu vaccine, which appears to be a good match for the virus circulating now, can provide up to 70 per cent protection from infection and serious illness in children.
“We still have time to blunt the impact of this virus,” said Henry. “Make a difference, get the vaccine now.”
But some doctors, and the BC Green Party, want to see more protections like mandatory masks and better ventilation back in schools.
B.C. hospitals are seeing about 200 more kids sick with respiratory illness per day, Health Minister Adrian Dix said. The Globe and Mail reported this weekend that at 12 pediatric hospitals across Canada, there were about 223 children admitted with the flu in the last week of November when there would normally be 11 such admissions.
Several hospitals in the Lower Mainland have opened overflow emergency rooms and reduced non-urgent surgeries to preserve pediatric intensive care beds and dwindling staff for severe flu and COVID-19 patients.
The rates of absenteeism due to illness in schools, which the province doesn’t share publicly, are also causing some schools to shut down.
Past COVID measure tied to flu surge: Henry
This year’s flu season started earlier, Henry said, partially because many children have not been exposed to the flu recently due to COVID-19 public health measures that virtually eliminated it, like masking.
Without vaccinations, their immune systems are not prepared to recognize and fight the virus. And studies have shown previous COVID-19 infections damage immune systems, including among children. A September study co-authored by Henry suggests about 80 per cent of children in B.C. have had COVID-19 at least once.
But only 50,000 of 280,000 kids four and under are registered in the province’s Get Vaccinated system for flu and COVID-19 vaccines.
And B.C. has consistently had among the lowest vaccine coverage for kids in all of Canada. About 15 per cent of children six months to four years old have one dose of vaccine, and that figure is 51 per cent for school-aged children up to 11 years old.
Henry and immunization head Dr. Penny Ballem announced Monday the province would be using addresses and phone numbers from provincial data to invite parents to register their children directly.
Once registered, a parent can see all nearby options for COVID-19 and flu vaccines. There are also a number of walk-in options that will be available this week and weekend, Henry and Ballem said.
“We’d like to have a sort of blitz, as I’ve called it, a vaxapalooza,” said Ballem.
Henry says vaccinating kids and older adults will be key to avoiding the typical post-holiday spike in influenza cases the province sees following many indoor gatherings.
She suggested staying home when sick and wearing masks in indoor spaces for an added layer of protection.
When asked whether she was considering bringing back masks in schools or mandating vaccines for children in classrooms, Henry said they were a “last resort” option.
Most children have mild illness, she said, and it is “unclear if mandating masks in schools would significantly impact the trajectory of these viruses.”
“We focus on mandates in the settings where they have the most impact,” said Henry.
‘Little downside to wearing a mask’: surgeon
Pediatric cardiac surgeon Dr. Sanjiv Gandhi said the province should be using every layer of protection it has to keep kids safe, including mandating masks in schools.
“The flu, COVID-19, RSV, these are all respiratory viruses. It doesn’t take a big leap of faith to know we will curtail their spread by wearing a mask,” he said in a media availability with the BC Green Party on Monday. “There is very little downside to wearing a mask.”
Gandhi has seen his patients at BC Children’s Hospital come in sicker and have surgeries cancelled due to the crush of flu and COVID-19 patients admitted to hospital.
"Everybody talked during COVID about wanting to get herd immunity but what we've gotten instead is a herd immune deficit,” said Gandhi. “COVID hurts our immune systems and it's causing children to get sicker than they should."
BC Green Party Leader Sonia Furstenau said Monday the government’s vaccine-only strategy isn’t working.
“We are seeing that this approach isn’t resulting in decreasing pressures on emergency rooms and children’s hospital and the outcomes for families are very concerning for us,” she told media.
An independent review of the province’s pandemic response, released late Friday, found public trust in public health guidance had been eroded by a lack of transparency about the evidence supporting different decisions, including the lifting of mask mandates.
Furstenau and Gandhi urged the province to move with the same urgency to protect children as it did for older adults earlier in the pandemic.
“We have all the tools to change the trajectory of this horrible situation, and it’s horrible,” said Gandhi. “The only missing ingredient is courage.”