Health authority 'cautiously optimistic' flu season is winding down

A Winnipeg Regional Health Authority official says she's "cautiously optimistic" the health system has made it through the worst of this year's nasty flu season.

Province confirms weekly flu data report shows fewer new cases

Lori Lamont, vice-president and chief nursing officer with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, said wait times didn't increase as much as they could have during a tough flu season. (Lyza Sale/CBC)

A Winnipeg Regional Health Authority official says she's "cautiously optimistic" the health system has made it through the worst of this year's flu season, a position she says is supported by the province's recent weekly flu report.

According to the report laboratory-confirmed cases of Influenza A have only climbed from 167 to 170. In the past week there were 15 hospitalizations, 4 flu-related deaths and four Influenza A outbreaks, down from last week's ten.

Lori Lamont, acting chief operating officer of the WRHA, said they "are feeling less pressure from flu-related illness in our acute-care system, so we're hopeful that we are at the top of the peak."

"I mean, that's a very high peak, even compared to a couple of years ago. So I'm cautiously optimistic," said Lamont.

"It's always a bit of a relief but in reality we're not out of the woods. Because when you think about it, there's still going to be virus out there, we can still you know end up getting sick," said  Dr. Richard Rusk, provincial medical officer for health. 

He said anecdotal evidence from the lab shows that there may be a small spike in cases of Influenza B now. "We do have a vaccine that we know is very effective. We've got data that going all the way back to Australia that the Influenza B has worked very well."

According to the flu report, the peak and drop-off for 2017/2018 is not as high as what it was in the comparably 'nasty' year, which was 2014/2015.

This flu season, which is dominated by the H3N2 virus, started earlier and produced more cases than other recent bouts, Lamont said.

Recent data tracked by the surveillance branch of the province's public health division shows there were nine flu-related deaths in Manitoba between September and early January, but that number had climbed to 21 by Jan. 13.

The health authority postponed 97 elective surgeries this month to accommodate the higher pressure on the system. Lamont said 61 of those have been rescheduled and seven have already been performed.

"We do know from what we're seeing in our acute care hospitals and with our emergency volumes that we believe the impact on the system is starting to plateau and come down," Lamont said.

"[We're] hopeful that the data that we get in the next week or so will confirm that, but things certainly do seem to be stabilizing in our acute care system."

'Tremendous change' in long-term care wait

The tough flu season is providing a stress test on new health-care consolidation that started last year, Lamont said, including the closure of three Winnipeg emergency rooms, two of which were converted to urgent care centres.

"While we had increased pressure on our emergency departments, increased volumes and we did see some increase in the wait times, we do believe that the changes we've made have made it possible for us to mitigate the impact and to be able to keep that increase in wait time to a much more manageable level."

Median wait times in Winnipeg emergency rooms dropped from 1.8 hours between Oct. 4, 2016 to Jan. 2, 2017 down to 1.5 hours in the same time period in 2017-18, Lamont said.

Times for those who waited longest — patients in the 90th percentile for wait times, meaning they waited longer than 90 per cent of others — dropped from 5.1 hours in that time frame in 2016-17 to 4.1 in 2017-18, she added.

Lamont credits a large part of that drop to a "tremendous change" in the number of patients in acute-care beds who are waiting to be transitioned into long-term care.

At this time last year, there were 78 patients — largely seniors — who were waiting to be moved, Lamont said. This week, there are nine — the lowest number since comparable data started being gathered in 2002.

"I've been around a little longer than 2002 and can tell you that in my experience … this number in 25 years has never been this low," she said.

Lamont credits the drop to a handful of consolidation initiatives including the transitional care environment program — which promotes recovery in home-like settings outside the hospital — and the priority home program, which helps patients who are medically stable return home more quickly, with temporary bolstered supports.

She also pointed to the consolidation of subacute and transitional care beds at the Victoria Hospital, so patients who are waiting don't have to do so in acute-care environments.

"Remember, no one piece of our system works in isolation. A big part of emergency's capacity to continue to see new patients is for them to be able to see patients [and] either discharge them home in a timely way or, for those who need admission, for those admitted patients to move upstairs," Lamont said.

"In order for those admitted patients to move upstairs, we need to have capacity there."