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Toronto may be past its flu peak, but COVID-19 remains high, public health agency says

Toronto likely reached its influenza season peak in December, but according to Toronto Public Health’s latest respiratory illness update, COVID-19 infections are expected to remain high for now.

The percentage of positive influenza tests dropped to 6.6 per cent the week of Dec. 31 to Jan. 6, down from 15.6 per cent the week prior, Toronto Public Health (TPH) told the city’s Board of Health Monday. When it comes to COVID-19, positivity dropped only slightly to 17.6 per cent for the week of Dec. 31 to Jan. 6 from 18.6 per cent the week before.

But getting over the influenza peak doesn’t mean there aren’t still high levels of the illness in the city. 

“We went up the rollercoaster, we were at the top, that was the peak,” Dr. Vinita Dubey, TPH’s associate medical officer of health told CBC Toronto. “But even on the way down, you still have a lot of activity on the other side until you get to the bottom again.” 

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Dr. Susy Hota, head of the infectious diseases division at University Health Network (UHN), also says influenza appears to have peaked. While the hospital is still seeing patients hospitalized with influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), the vast majority of cases involve COVID-19.

When it comes to RSV, she said the number of infections has been lower this year, which came as a relief after a bad previous season.

Hota says it looks like COVID-19 could be peaking now, but it’s hard to say how long that will last because the illness is still relatively new and therefore unpredictable.

When it comes to what people should do with all that information, Hota says it’s simple. 

“It’s very much a similar message that we need to maybe reinforce and people every year,” she said. Hota says people should stay up to date on vaccines and stay home when they’re sick.

‘Really bad’ to ‘not good’

The end-of-December influenza peak coincided with a spike in emergency department visits for respiratory illnesses, which started to decrease in the first week of January, says TPH.

That’s a trend that Toronto emergency room Dr. Lisa Salamon says is a shift from “really bad” to “not good.”

During the week of Dec. 31 to Jan. 6, the seven-day average of respiratory-related emergency department visits went down about 30 per cent, according the public health agency says.

Dr. Lisa Salamon, an emergency room physician with the Scarborough Health Network, is pictured outside Birchmount Hospital, in Scarborough, Ont., on March 18, 2021.
Dr. Lisa Salamon, an emergency room physician with the Scarborough Health Network, says the baseline level of respiratory illnesses in emergency rooms hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic levels. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Salamon, who works for the Scarborough Health Network, says despite the decline, hospitals are still feeling pressure.

“I think what is pretty important to know or at least what we feel, is that the baseline seems to be higher than ever before. So we never came back down to a pre-pandemic baseline,” she said. 

Continued COVID-19 deaths discouraging: physician

From Jan. 2 to Jan. 10, TPH received reports of 122 COVID-19 related hospitalizations, eight new ICU admissions and 44 COVID-related deaths.

Dr. Allison McGeer, an infectious disease physician at Sinai Health, it’s discouraging to see hospitalizations and deaths related to the virus continue. 

“I was really hoping before this winter, that COVID was going to be down to about the level of influenza. And it’s not… It’s still significantly worse than influenza,” McGeer said. 

Given that, McGeer says people need to keep their vaccinations up to date. During TPH’s presentation Monday, the agency shared its work to promote vaccines. 

But McGeer says getting shots in arms at this point is a challenge on two fronts. Firstly, many no longer want to hear about the pandemic. Secondly, COVID-19 is much less severe than it used to be and being infected doesn’t feel very dangerous when so many people have had it.

She says people need to view COVID-19 as familiar and dangerous, like a car. 

“When you drive your car, even in winter storms, you don’t expect to be in an accident, right? You don’t really think your seatbelt is necessary, but you put it on anyway,” she said.

“COVID and flu vaccines are just like that. It’s really easy to think it’s not going to happen to you, and it’s not going to be severe. But you still need to get your vaccine.”

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