Health officials offer free flu shots to dampen potential fall influenza and COVID-19 surge
Flu shots to be available to the general population after the Thanksgiving long weekend
British Columbia health officials are preparing for the possibility of a twin surge of flu and COVID-19 cases this fall.
At a news conference on Wednesday, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry promised free flu vaccines would be available starting next week for those at high risk, with distribution to the general population for those six months and older beginning Oct. 11, after the Thanksgiving long weekend.
Seniors are eligible for enhanced vaccines that provide additional protection.
Henry said that based on what was seen during winter in southern hemisphere locations like Australia and New Zealand, B.C. could see an early onslaught of influenza in November and December. Normally flu season peaks in January.
"We've had very little to almost no influenza for the last few years. That means there's a cohort … of young people who have never been exposed to influenza," she said.
Planning is also underway to deal with potential staff and bed shortages within the health-care system, including looking at moving hospital patients into community care and speeding up home care placement, according to Health Minister Adrian Dix.
There are currently 350 COVID-19 patients in hospital. Projections show an additional 700 COVID-19 patients and up to 1,200 additional influenza patients could need hospitalization over the course of the fall and winter seasons.
1,500 more hospital beds
Dix said, if needed, 1,500 more beds could be made available in the late fall through early spring, ensuring room for additional patients.
"While actual volumes are hard to predict, we have to prepare for all scenarios, including the most difficult," he said.
Worst-case scenario planning is also underway, said Dix, looking at last resort tactics like postponing non-urgent surgeries as was the case during the height of the pandemic.
"We obviously want to avoid that. It's why we have increased surgical capacity so significantly in the pandemic ... It's why we've done more surgeries this summer than in any other summer in history," said Dix. "Obviously, we hope for best-case scenarios."
Invitations to book a fall COVID-19 bivalent vaccine booster shot started rolling out in early September.
The new shot is a combination vaccine with a mixture of spike protein elements from both the original SARS-CoV-2 virus and the Omicron variant, BA.1. Henry says it has been proven to be effective against all Omicron variants.
Health officials are strongly recommending people who are eligible get both a fall booster and flu shot to protect themselves and the health-care system.
With files from Canadian Press