Sask. doctor says this fall's flu season 'unprecedented'

Kate Smith says spending time at the Jim Pattison Children's Hospital with her four-year-old son was like swimming in a sea of sick children.

Sasakatoon mom describes 'sea of sick children' in emergency room

A Saskatoon mother says the Jim Pattison Children's Hospital ws packed with sick kids during a recent visit. (Matthew Garand/CBC)

Kate Smith says spending time at the Jim Pattison Children's Hospital with her four-year-old son was like swimming in "a sea of sick children."

"It was just like an orchestra of coughs," Smith said. "It hurts your soul to hear these babies cough."

The Saskatoon mother of three said her sons got ill one after the other from the end of October to around mid-November.

One evening her four-year-old son had a very high fever and experienced problems seeing, so the parents took him to the hospital.

"That's where we joined the sea of sick children waiting in the ER," she said.

It turned out her four-year-old son was much sicker than anticipated. He was admitted the same night, according to Smith.

Shortly after, the family's doctor also sent another of their sons to the ER, Smith said, and eventually her third child also became ill.

'National influenza epidemic': Canadian government

It has been a challenging fall for pediatric hospitals in Saskatchewan and across the country, with influenza raging among children.

The Canadian government described flu activity in the country as "above expected levels typical of this time of the year," according to the federal FluWatch report up to Dec. 3.

"This season is unprecedented in terms of respiratory illnesses," said Dr. Mahli Brindamour, a pediatrician in Saskatoon.

"I've been working in pediatrics for a long time and I've never seen a flu season that started this early, this severely, affecting this many people. So certainly extraordinary times."

The most prevalent (97 per cent) flu strain in Canada right now is called influenza A H3N2, according to the federal FluWatch report.

People who already had influenza this fall are not immune from getting sick again, with some catching the flu multiple times in a year, said Brindamour.

Even though it is difficult to make predictions, the Saskatoon physician doesn't think the flu season is over yet in the province, as doctors usually see a surge of illnesses after the holidays. 

"Typically it's several months and the end of the winter is the end of the flu season," said Brindamour.

"Having started earlier with that many children who are sick and hospitalized will probably translate into a longer flu season."

Earlier this month, some hospitals in Canada were forced to scale back regular service to deal with a surge in influenza. In Calgary, for example, a respite care facility closed to redeploy staff to a children's hospital.

Dr. Mahli Brindamour is pediatrician in Saskatoon. (CBC News)

Brindamour said children are traditionally more vulnerable when it comes to respiratory illnesses.

"Certainly COVID has never gone away," she said.

"Then we have the addition of other respiratory viruses this year in particular, which we avoided during COVID to a certain degree." 

The so-called triple threat posed by COVID-19, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and influenza has been concerning health care professionals across the country, even though cases of RSV seem to have stabilized in Canada after spiking earlier this season, according to the Government of Canada's recent respiratory virus report.

Situation in Regina and Saskatoon

According to Brindamour, this fall the Jim Pattison Children's Hospital has been full or over-capacity "all the time." 

The Saskatoon physician is not used to seeing children waiting in the emergency department for hours, she said.

LISTEN | Guest host Jennifer Quesnel speaks with Dr. Mahli Brindamour on Saskatoon Morning: 
The so-called triple threat of COVID, the flu and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) has hit Saskatchewan hard. Guest host Jennifer Quesnel speaks with Dr. Mahli Brindamour about where we are at in the fight to stay healthy this winter.

When asked how many beds are available for kids at the Regina General Hospital and the children's hospital in Saskatoon, the Saskatchewan Health Authority said eight additional beds — six in Saskatoon and two in Regina — have been staffed to increase access to care for children.

"Saskatchewan is following and monitoring the situation across the country and monitoring the impact here in the province," a spokesperson with the SHA said in an email on Monday.

"Response plans are being readied to ensure Saskatchewan hospitals are prepared to meet the needs of children and families should we experience the same level of surge occurring in other provinces."

The SHA said it also added incremental care staff at peak times into stressed areas like the ER at the children's hospital in Saskatoon.

For Smith and her family, this fall has been a health nightmare.

"As all parents who went through the influenza wave know, there was no Tylenol to be found and also a shortage of children's antibiotics," said Smith.

"We weren't given what doctors like to prescribe first, we were given second hand antibiotics, which luckily still did the trick."


Masking, staying at home when sick and getting vaccinated are some "simple" measures to protect yourself and the community, said Brindamour.

When it comes to COVID-19 shots in particular, Angela Rasmussen recommends people get the bivalent vaccine, which targets both the original strain and one of the Omicron strains.

"The early COVID-19 shots were monovalent," said Rasmussen, a virologist and researcher with the University of Saskatchewan's Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization.

"That means they're specific against one essentially flavour of SARS-CoV-2 spike protein. In this case, that means the original spike protein that was on the original virus that's no longer really circulating. What is circulating now are members of the Omicron family of variants, and that's what the bivalent vaccine vaccine includes."

A recent paper from the United States' Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that the bivalent boosters provide additional protection in people who had previously received two to four monovalent vaccines, she said.

The benefit of the bivalent booster seems to increase for people who waited a longer period of time after their last monovalent shot, the CDC report said.

"Everybody should get the bivalent, provided that there has been a long enough interval since your last encounter with the virus, whether that's in the form of your most recent booster or your most recent case of COVID," said Rasmussen.

Both Rasmussen and Brindamour encourage people to also get their flu shots.

This year's flu vaccine does appear to be a good match for the strains and subtypes of influenza that are circulating, said Rasmussen.

"The flu vaccine works very well," said Brindamour.

"You can still get the flu if you're vaccinated, but you might avoid complications and admissions."


Theresa Kliem


Theresa Kliem is a journalist with CBC Saskatoon. She is an immigrant to Canada and loves telling stories about people in Saskatchewan. Email

With files from Saskatoon Morning