Flu season arrives early, slams clinics over holidays

Doctors' offices and clinics across Ottawa are swamped with coughing, feverish patients with sore throats this holiday season. According to Ottawa Public Health, the flu has arrived early this year at a highly contagious time.

'It's been crisis mode ... We've never seen that many patients,' says clinic manager

Samantha Crete visited the clinic after a long week of being home sick during the holidays. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

Doctors offices and clinics across Ottawa are swamped with coughing, feverish patients with sore throats and stuffy noses this holiday season. One clinic manager said he's never seen anything like it, with people lining up out the door. 

"It's been crisis mode for the last four or five days," said Martin Scullion, the manager of Southbank Medical Centre. "This clinic has been here for 20 years. We've never seen that many patients."
Martin Scullion, manager of Southbank Medical Centre, said a record number of patients experiencing flu-like symptoms have been in over the holidays. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

More than 170 people waited up to two hours to see a doctor on Dec.27. That's double the number of people that usually come into the Southbank clinic.

According to Ottawa Public Health, the flu has arrived early this year at the worst possible time for spreading germs. People are visiting large groups of family and friends leading up to the New Year. 

"Each week we're seeing more and more cases," said Robin Taylor, Ottawa's associate medical officer of health.

"When it's cold and people are inside and they're packed together, they are more likely to spread viruses including the flu," she explained.

More than 80 confirmed flu cases

There have been 81 laboratory-confirmed influenza cases in the capital so far this flu season. That's up from 17 cases during the same period last year. And those 81 patients represent only a small fraction of actual flu cases, most of which go unreported, said Taylor. 

It's been miserable. We all feel cranky.- Brittany Andor

Samantha Crete and her entire family spent Christmas wrapped in blankets and huddled around the tree opening gifts surrounded by boxes of Kleenex.

"We have a whole house full of sick people," said Crete. "My son, who is seven, he has been coughing his brains out since Christmas. My mother-in-law she barely made it through Christmas dinner. I lost my voice Christmas Day."

Crete and her sister-in-law Brittany Andor visited the clinic Thursday. They had to cancel their visit with their grandmother so she didn't catch what's going around their house. The illness has rotated through seven family members so far. 

"My nephew was sick a couple days ago, then it went person-to-person," said Andor. "I guess it's my turn. It's been miserable. We all kind of feel cranky, on edge, and we're in a very small house with seven people. It's a lot of bacteria and viruses going around." 
Brittany Andor wore a hat and warm clothes to open presents on Christmas morning because she was feeling sick. (Submitted)

Not too late to get flu shot

It's unclear how many people got the flu shot this year.

Ottawa Public Health itself vaccinated 6,983 people so far, compared to 10,588 for all of last year. But the public health agency had given 277,328 vaccines to doctors as of the end of November, whereas it sent only 162,123 doses to doctors' offices last year.

As well, Ottawa Public Health distributed more than 112,000 vaccines to pharmacies during the 2015-16 flu season. This year, pharmacies received the vaccines directly from their own suppliers, which makes it difficult to know exactly how many flu shots were given this past fall in the capital region.

Unlike other years when the vaccine wasn't a great match with the actual flu virus, this year's version looks like it is giving recipients "some protection," said Taylor.

"Whether it's an early match, we're not sure yet," she said. "We won't know it until the season is over."

Health officials insist it's still not too late to get a flu shot. They are also urging people to wash their hands, wipe down their cell phones, light switches and door knobs. 

Finally, Taylor added, if you are sick, stay home to avoid passing on the flu to anyone else.