PEI

Fewer sniffles, no flu: P.E.I. seeing 'unintended impacts' of COVID-19 measures

Ten months after the COVID-19 pandemic began, Islanders may be starting to see some of the unintended benefits of the province’s public health measures: fewer respiratory illnesses and virtually no influenza.

Pandemic may have cemented habits we’ll keep up in post-COVID world, says Morrison

None of Laurie Halupa's five children have been sick since they went back to school in September. (Submitted by Laurie Halupa)

Ten months after the province's public health measures were implemented, Islanders may be starting to see some of the unintended benefits: fewer respiratory illnesses and virtually no influenza.

P.E.I. Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Heather Morrison says public health has long been pressing for Islanders to adopt frequent hand washing, sanitizing surfaces, staying home when you're sick and coughing into your sleeve to stem the spread of infection. 

"Those are making a difference — not just for influenza, but other respiratory illnesses and reducing the spread of illness, which is great for our community," she said.

"Not that people weren't paying attention to it, but they really are paying attention to it now, and I think that will influence how we behave going forward."

P.E.I. has not had any reported cases of influenza this season, which Morrison said falls under COVID-19's "unintended impacts."

At a federal level, Public Health Canada's latest FluWatch report said all indicators of influenza have remained "exceptionally low" for the time of year.

"We're not having outbreaks in long-term care related to influenza, and that's always an issue every season," Morrison said.

"We're not seeing the other respiratory illnesses in the same way in our facilities either."

And it's not just affecting long-term care facilities. On Thursday, Island Abbey Foods, makers of Honibe cough and cold lozenges, announced it was eliminating 30 temporary staff due to a "non-existent" cough and cold year that cut into sales for that product line.

No sick kids

Some parents who spoke to CBC News said they too are noticing a difference. 

Jill Jenkins has seven children in her house, aged three to 13. While a domino effect of cold transmission is usually the norm in her Charlottetown household, she hasn't had a single child get sick since most of them went back to school in September.

"Honestly, I've been so surprised. Usually there is at least two of them that their noses are constantly running from roughly September until March — and this year, nobody has been sick in the whole house," she said. 

"I can't believe it."

Jill Jenkins has seven children in her household. None has come down with anything this year, something she says is hard to believe compared to a normal winter season. (Nicola MacLeod/CBC)

With seven kids, Jenkins said she and her husband usually take turns staying home with them when they're sick, so as to not eat away just one parent's sick days.

"I thought for sure that we were going to have a lot more days of being home with the regulations at school, not wanting anyone to go to school with COVID symptoms," she said.

"Usually we have to take multiple days off work or leave work to pick them up at school or anything like that — it's been really helpful."

Jenkins said it's also been good for her children, who don't need to miss out on participating in sports or playing with their friends. 

"They haven't had any kind of barriers on what they like to do because of it," she said.

It's been amazing to be able to have your kids in school consistently, not having to run to the doctor— Laurie Halupa

Megan Beairsto of Kensington is also relieved her kids haven't been sick this year, as that wasn't the case last year. Both her then-newborn and her young son, now in Grade 1, ended up on inhalers.

"That was one of the scariest times ever of raising children," said Beairsto.

She said her son in particular is adapting well to COVID and wants to do what he sees adults doing, like sanitizing his hands and wearing his mask in school.

"He just instantly picked it up and, you know, they thought it was a fashion accessory and [he] was super happy," she said.

"It's a bizarre time to have young children, for sure."

'Remarkably calm'

Laurie Halupa lives in Summerside with her five kids. Her oldest is nine and her five-year-old twins are the youngest.

"They have autism, so they're a little more sensitive," she said. "They've been flying through this year with no problems at all."

Like the other parents, none of Halupa's kids have come down with anything this year.

"It has been remarkably calm. As a mom with five kids, sicknesses is my worst nightmare," she said.

"You have one and then next thing you know, you have five at home sick. And one of my biggest fears this year was the colds. You know, the second they get a sniffle or whatever, you have to worry about COVID, taking them in for the testing."

Megan Beairsto's kids, Frederick and Archie Lambert, both had to use inhalers to kick a nasty illness last year. Beairsto says the lack of illness in her house this year is a relief. (Submitted by Megan Beairsto)

Typically, Halupa's school year includes many calls from the school, alerting her to her children's symptoms.

"I have a couple of kids who are a little medically sensitive, a lot of allergies even, and we haven't even had much allergies," she said.

"It's been amazing to be able to have your kids in school consistently, not having to run to the doctor."

What's here to stay

As for what the future looks like, Dr. Morrison said some protocols introduced to us during the pandemic may be here to stay, like widely available hand sanitizer at the entrances of businesses, or accessible places to wash hands.

Wearing masks, physical distancing and heavy cleaning have become normal in P.E.I. schools. Parents told CBC News they believe this contributes to their children not picking up germs. (John Robertson/CBC)

"I think we've all done that previously, where [when] you're sick, instead of working from home, you go to work, and I think people won't do that to the same extent and it won't be acceptable to others in the workplace for you to do that, and the same for schools," she said.

"I don't think it will change our approach to isolation or border screening, but it may be something that we just are thinking about more broadly."

I don't think it will change our approach to isolation or border screening, but it may be something that we just are thinking about more broadly.- Dr. Heather Morrison

Even though the COVID measures seem to be creating those unintended benefits, the CPHO says she won't ease restrictions until the right time comes.

Some screening protocols may stay in place at workplaces and schools to help decrease the general spread of illness.

Though it may mean more sick days, Beairsto is generally looking forward to the day when life gets back to normal.

"I think of them greeting each other with little hugs every day, and I know it makes me sad knowing that's not something that they're able to do right now," she said.

"I'll be looking forward to that kind of interaction."

More from CBC P.E.I.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nicola MacLeod is a reporter with CBC in P.E.I.

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