“Extraordinarily high” flu activity leaves schools and hospitals at risk

By Diana Krstic, Kaitlin McKeown and Stefania Spezzati, CNN

An unusually high number of flu-related school closures has left parents scrambling to find daycare for their children, while the Southern Ontario Health Authority says flu activity is “extraordinarily high.”

Ontario’s Ministry of Education says 90 schools have been closed due to outbreaks of the flu this flu season.

The state of emergency issued Friday night by Ontario’s regional health authority has placed schools and hospitals in the Waterloo Region, Toronto, and southwestern Ontario at risk of losing staff members or facilities if they cannot reopen quickly.

Health officials encourage those who are sick to stay home for at least 48 hours before returning to work or school to prevent further spread of the virus.

But people who do go to work or school without being fever-free for at least 48 hours before returning can also be left at risk for secondary infection with the flu.

Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott said on Friday that if the ministry had received reports of close-knit communities like Smiths Falls in the Waterloo Region that have reported their highest rates of flu-like illness, it might have taken a different approach.

“There are communities with … the highest number of flu-like illnesses that are also people who don’t necessarily go to work and go to school at school,” Elliott said. “And that is what we are really concerned about.”

There have been 11,296 lab-confirmed influenza cases reported to the Toronto Public Health Laboratory as of December 15. More than 3,500 tests have come back positive for the flu since the beginning of the month.

Officials said Friday that they have seen more cases of Influenza A or H3N2 — which this year is associated with more severe symptoms — compared with other years.

There have been 20 pediatric deaths due to influenza so far this flu season in Canada, according to data from the Public Health Agency of Canada. Of those 20 deaths, at least nine are considered to be due to the H3N2 virus strain.

Flu viruses have mutated and spread more easily this year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We know, in general, the earlier that vaccines become effective, the less severe the season is. But we really don’t know what the public health impact will be this year,” said Helen Kleeman, deputy chief medical officer of health for Toronto.

About 300 people attended a recent information session to discuss the state of emergency. The agency has begun communicating through health care providers and parent groups to address the issue, according to Linda Dias, director of communicable disease control and education at the Waterloo Region Public Health Agency.

The agency is asking the public to practice best hygiene hygiene, to make sure their hands are clean and that they cover their coughs and sneezes, as they may spread disease with coughing or sneezing.

It’s expected that the flu season will end by the first or second week of February, Kleeman said.

“So if you start to have symptoms, please stay home, and if you think you have flu, please get some medical attention,” she said.

Public officials say they are focused on preventing further spread of the virus through prevention measures, like handing out free masks to protect staff and patients from contact with germs. People are being encouraged to wear it and wash their hands frequently.

Kleeman said that the Public Health Agency of Canada has provided masks for distribution in Ontario schools but the agency is unsure how much inventory of masks is out there.

“We’re still in the process of sending those out,” she said.

The masks are designed to keep the virus from entering the airways and are designed to block off any flu particles. Kleeman said they’re sold in small, medium and large sizes.

The masks will be distributed at more than 100 schools in the Waterloo Region and 40 schools in Toronto. The agency will also be sending masks to health care facilities around the Toronto area.

“The main message, when we’re talking about masks, is that they provide a barrier to germs and to viruses, so if you wear a mask, then you are literally creating the barrier between the virus and you,” Kleeman said.

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