British Columbia

B.C. health officials encourage mask-wearing, getting shots as respiratory illnesses surge

Health officials in B.C. are watching a surge in respiratory illness and its impact on the health-care system in Ontario while stressing the importance of getting vaccines and wearing masks as protective measures.

Health Minister Adrian Dix says B.C. doing better than Ontario with hospitals not over capacity

B.C. health officials say wearing a mask to guard against respiratory illness will remain voluntary despite a rise in cases of flu. Experts are recommending people be vaccinated against the virus and against COVID-19. (Ben Nelms/CBC News)

Health officials in B.C. are watching a surge in respiratory illness and its impact on the health-care system in Ontario while stressing the importance of getting vaccines and wearing masks as protective measures.

The federal flu watch report from Oct. 30 to Nov. 5, which was published on Monday, said that "at the national level, influenza activity has crossed the seasonal threshold, indicating the start of an influenza epidemic."

"We're very concerned," said Dr. Jana Davidson, chief medical officer at B.C. Children's Hospital in Vancouver. "Emergency room presentations are up 20 per cent year on year."

On Monday in Ontario, that province's chief medical officer strongly recommended Ontarians wear masks in all public settings, including in schools and child-care settings, as the health-care system is strained by the triple threat of COVID-19 infections, a rise in respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and influenza.

Some hospitals have delayed surgeries to deal with young patients in emergency departments.

In Vancouver, Erin Millar said she had to rush to B.C. Children's Hospital with her six-year-old daughter last weekend, as she was having trouble breathing due to a respiratory illness.

She said she was thankful for the care her daughter received but the hospital seemed overwhelmed with similar patients lined up to get into the emergency room.

"The place was just packed," said Millar, who ended up staying three nights in the hospital with her daughter, who had been vaccinated for COVID-19 and the flu.

She said staff was scrambling to keep up with the demands of treating other sick kids. Her daughter has since recovered.

"Thank you to the health-care workers. They were clearly doing the best they could in a terrible circumstance."

Health experts like Davidson say that young people, notably infants and toddlers, are particularly at risk from influenza as the flu season was suppressed for two years due to precautions in place to prevent COVID-19 infections. For some people, this season is the first time they're being exposed to something like the flu.

'Reinforce our vaccine campaign'

On Monday, B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix said the respiratory illness situation in Ontario was more serious than what B.C. was currently experiencing.

Dix said that pediatric emergency care beds in the province were at around 70 per cent capacity overall and that visits to hospitals for things like flu were still within a normal range.

His office said the only neo-natal ICU over capacity is at Kelowna General Hospital, which has six beds. Eleven patients have been admitted.

He said the province would not, at present, be changing any of its masking rules.

In B.C., wearing masks in public indoor settings is not required by public health and is a personal choice. Masks are required in all health-care settings, like vaccine clinics and hospitals.

"The message is the same …especially if you have some form of respiratory illness, even a mild cold, to wear a mask, especially among vulnerable people," said Dix.

Flu jabs up

Dix said on Monday the province exceeded one million people who had so far received a flu vaccine. He said it's double the amount compared to this time last year.

"We started earlier. The campaign is going quite well," he said. "We've just got to continue to make that progress."

Dr. Brian Conway, with the Vancouver Infectious Diseases Centre, stressed the importance of making sure anyone who can get a flu vaccine and COVID-19 vaccine gets one, as the shots are the best defence against serious illness.

"We should really reinforce our vaccine campaign, make sure everyone gets their COVID shots, their flu shots, that people stay home if they are sick and that in the context of those interventions, we see masks as an additional layer of protection to be used as needed."


Chad Pawson is a CBC News reporter in Vancouver. You can contact him at

With files from Meera Bains, the CBC's Early Edition and On the Coast


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