British Columbia

Health officials urge parents to have children vaccinated amid 'dramatic increase' in flu cases

Health officials in B.C. are urging parents to get their children vaccinated against the flu as the province grapples with an earlier-than-usual flu season, leading to long waits at major emergency rooms ahead of the holiday season.

Estimated wait time at B.C. Children's Hospital over the weekend was as long as 10 hours

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry during a news conference on influenza in Vancouver, British Columbia, on Monday, Dec. 5, 2022. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Health officials in B.C. are urging parents to get their children vaccinated against the flu as the province grapples with an earlier-than-usual flu season, leading to long waits at major emergency rooms ahead of the holiday season.

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said Monday that B.C. is seeing a "dramatic increase" in cases of influenza A, a strain which can cause severe illness in children.

"I cannot stress enough the importance of influenza immunization right now, this year in particular," said Henry, speaking to reporters in Vancouver.

"There are more children now who have not been exposed to influenza in the last two years ... so more of them are getting sick now."

Henry said the peak of flu season has arrived two weeks earlier than it usually would.

While the province is on track for a record number of people getting their flu shot this year, Dr. Penny Ballem with B.C. Vaccine Operations says only 20 per cent of children under five have been vaccinated.

Ballem says they'll be sending texts and emails to families of about 150,000 children under five, inviting them to make appointments to get vaccinated.

Dr. Bonnie Henry explains why flu vaccination clinics are not in schools:

Health officials explain why B.C. isn't holding flu vaccination clinics in schools

2 months ago
Duration 0:43
Dr. Bonnie Henry says the highest risk group for children is typically six months to five years of age.

Health Minister Adrian Dix said visits to provincial emergency rooms had been averaging 6,700 per day, but that is now peaking up to 6,900 patients daily, with extra pressure on B.C. Children's and Fraser Health hospitals.

According to numbers from the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, flu cases started spiking around Nov. 13. The latest data from the week of Nov. 20 shows that out of 169 patients at B.C. Children's Hospital with respiratory viruses, 71 had influenza, 43 had respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and 17 young patients tested positive for COVID-19.

Long waits for treatment at B.C. Children's Hospital

B.C. Children's Hospital has seen exceptionally long wait times as respiratory illnesses spread, with parents staying 12 hours or longer to have their children seen. Many children are also missing school, Henry said.

The hospital briefly called a code orange at 6:35 a.m. PT on Saturday. The code can be used for mass casualty events, but a statement said it was used Saturday "to escalate notification for staffing resources."

The code was cancelled that morning at 7:03 a.m.

Sarah Bell, the hospital's chief operating officer, said the emergency department is seeing high acuity on top of the sheer volume — which means a high number of patients require prolonged attention and care from nursing staff.

Bell said parents should only bring children with a respiratory illness to the emergency room if they're having trouble breathing, adding that children who are younger than three months and have a fever and are dehydrated with diarrhea or vomiting should also go to the ER.

"You probably don't need emergency care if your child has a cough, cold, sore throat, the flu, pink eye or an earache," she said.

B.C. Children's Hospital in December 2022. Wait times at the hospital over the weekend were as long as 12 hours. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Henry said that as of Monday, rates of the common cold and RSV have levelled off while influenza A has become more common.

COVID-19 continues to affect older adults, she said.

WATCH | Dr. Bonnie Henry explains why she wasn't ready in November to impose a mask mandate:

Dr. Bonnie Henry outlines why a mask mandate is not needed in B.C.

3 months ago
Duration 0:51
Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry says there are tools other than a mask mandate to prevent the spread of respiratory illnesses.

Dix said at the time the province had made plans to cancel non-urgent surgeries to create room at hospitals for patients, especially children, but had not yet reached that point.

"We do have other steps we don't want to take, but they would be, for example, delay of non-urgent surgery and then catching up on those quickly thereafter," Dix told reporters at the legislature.

"That step is available to us. We haven't done it yet. We knew this was going to be a hard season, and it is."

With files from The Canadian Press, Karin Larsen and Lien Yeung.

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