Holiday season health advice from Canada’s top doctor

Canada’s top doctor is sharing her advice for protecting the health of yourself and loved ones in the first holiday season largely free of COVID-19 restrictions.

Speaking to CTV’s Your Morning on Monday, Chief Public Health Officer of Canada Dr. Theresa Tam urged Canadians to keep up-to-date with their COVID-19 and flu vaccinations and to stay home if sick.

“Well, of course we’ve been gathering quite a bit since the fall and we’re heading into the holiday season, where people would want to get together more because it is the first holiday season where there’s been no specific restrictions on movement or contact,” Tam said.

“So with that in mind, we can protect ourselves as we head into meeting with family and friends.”

Tam suggested wearing high-quality masks, ensuring there is proper ventilation indoors, hand washing and using COVID-19 rapid tests as other ways to help prevent the spread of viruses during holiday gatherings.

She also stressed that anyone pregnant is at greater risk of developing severe outcomes from the flu and COVID-19, and would benefit from vaccinations.

According to data released by the Public Health Agency of Canada, more than 700 children were hospitalized by the end of November with H3N2, a strain of the flu that typically takes a toll on older adults. Previous pandemic restrictions have lessened the amount of flu-related hospitalizations, but the severity of recent cases has concerned medical teams.

The latest federal FluWatch report shows the percentage of tests positive for influenza, while still slightly above pre-pandemic levels, fell during the week of Dec. 4-10.

In that same period, pediatric hospitalizations for the flu dropped for the first time after weeks of increases, but also remained well above normal levels.

Federal data show the number of COVID-19 patients in hospital has fluctuated over the fall, surpassing the peaks reached in the early parts of the pandemic but still below the heights seen during the initial Omicron wave a year ago.

Recently, two children in Montreal died due to complications with strep A infection, and Montreal’s public health department announced a rise in streptococcal infections among young children since mid-November.

“The thing is, it’s still a very rare condition when it gets invasive and causes those severe complications,” Dr. Allan Grill, chief of family medicine at Oak Valley Health’s Markham Stouffville Hospital in Ontario, told CTV News Channel on Sunday, referring to strep A infection.

“There’s about five cases per about 100 thousand people. So it’s still pretty rare. But it’s obviously [something] we want parents to look out for.”

He added that signs to watch for include really high fevers, lethargy to the degree a child can’t be roused, and such difficulty breathing they can’t eat or drink.

“These are emergency situations where we need to get to the children quickly and examine them.”

Grill believes that the holidays are a “wonderful time for people to get together” but says certain considerations should be made while determining the safety of larger gatherings.

“Particularly in Canada, we saw a lot of respiratory illnesses [in recent months],” he said. “It’s had a strain on our health-care system. It’s made parents very anxious and concerned. And it’s made health-care providers have to work a lot harder.”

Along with staying home when ill and using rapid tests for COVID-19, Grill also suggested encouraging people to wear a mask, and giving people space to maintain a physical distance from one another.

“Washing your hands is important. If you’re having a party make sure there’s hand sanitizer around. Remind people to wash their hands before you sit down and eat and drink together.”

And there are other pre-emptive measures proven to mitigate the spread of infections, he said.

“Again, it’s not too late to get your flu shot… And it’s not too late to get caught up with your COVID-19 vaccine.”

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