Over the past few weeks, seasonal respiratory illnesses such as Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), influenza and colds have made an early return to the region, along with the continued COVID-19 pandemic. Eastern Ontario Health Unit (EOHU) Medical Officer of Health Dr. Paul Roumeliotis has offered expert explanation and instructions on the situation.

The situation has led to an alarming number of hospitalizations, and local hospitals are at 100 per cent capacity. Pediatric Intensive Care Units in the area are also overwhelmed, especially with young children under five years old with severe cases of RSV and the flu.

According to Roumeliotis, half of the hospitalizations for children are due to the flu, and the other half are due to RSV.

“COVID is not overwhelming our health care system,” Roumeliotis said.

However, the combination of it and the other respiratory viruses is placing pressure on the system. Roumeliotis said there is currently low to moderate COVID-19 activity in the region – showing itself in a series of ripples in cases, rather than the waves which characterized the first year of the pandemic.

RSV is the virus which causes the common cold. Usually, it and the flu make their debut during the Christmas season. However, they showed up early this year, in late October.

Hopeful situation will improve

Roumeliotis is hopeful the situation will begin to improve. He explained how the respiratory virus situation in Australia worsened earlier than usual before subsiding. Australia is used as a precedent because its winter season occurs when it is summer in Canada. Unlike adults with RSV, who usually just get a cold, children with RSV often develop other serious symptoms, such a bronchiolitis and serious difficulty breathing.

“Most of the cases we’re seeing are children,” Roumeliotis said.

He added the increase in hospital emergency visits is compounding the already difficult situation facing hospitals which do not have enough physicians and nurses to meet staffing needs.

The respiratory virus situation has led Roumeliotis to issue a series of requests to the public to reduce the spread of respiratory illnesses and protect the most vulnerable members of the population – most often children and the elderly – and to reduce the burden on hospitals. One is to wear a mask when out in public, or if you have respiratory virus symptoms.

“It’s not just for COVID,” Roumeliotis said.

Viruses have no boundaries

The request to wear a mask is not an official mandate, like those issued during the worst of COVID-19 in 2020 and 2021. Roumeliotis said if the current combination of respiratory illnesses threatened the health care system with collapse, then a mask mandate would be issued. He said such a mandate would likely be issued for across the province of Ontario, rather than just the EOHU’s territory.

“Viruses have no boundaries,” Roumeliotis commented.

Other ways to prevent the spread of respiratory viruses include washing your hands frequently and correctly, or using hand sanitizer when soap and water are not available, disinfecting surfaces often, and screening yourself daily, especially before attending work, childcare or school.

Getting a seasonal flu shot and staying up to date on COVID-19 vaccinations reduces the severity of respiratory illness, and both are available to every Ontario resident aged six months and older.

Vaccinations rates low in EOHU region

Roumeliotis said fewer residents are taking advantage of the available vaccinations.

“We’re low on vaccines (rates) for flu. We’re low on boosters for COVID,” he said.

The rates for COVID-19 boosters are lowest among younger adults. Using the most recent statistics, Roumeliotis said less than 50 per cent of EOHU residents under age 40 have received a third COVID-19 booster. A total of 43 per cent of residents under age 30 have received the third booster, and 33 per cent of those aged 18 to 29 have had the third booster.

Roumeliotis acknowledged many people have become tired of the pandemic after nearly three years, or they think it is over, or have been influenced by disinformation about it.

As additional advice, keeping children, and babies especially, away from crowds, will also help minimize the risk of infection. Most importantly, anyone feeling sick, should stay home. Minor symptoms for one person could result in severe illness or hospitalization for someone more vulnerable.

Shortage of children’s medication

Fever reduction medications for children, such as Tylenol (acetaminophen), have been in short supply lately in Canada. Health Canada and retail pharmacies are addressing the situation. Roumeliotis emphasized how medications such as Tylenol only treat the symptoms, and not the virus.

“It’s just to make the child more comfortable and bring the fever down,” he noted.

A fever is a normal part of a virus, Roumeliotis said. However, if an infant aged under three months has a fever, or a child has a fever for more than three or four days, medical attention should be sought.

“You have to look at the combination of signs,” Roumeliotis remarked.

Pharmacists are able to compound adult fever medications into smaller doses for children. Roumeliotis said other alternatives are available, such as giving the child a lukewarm bath, or dressing them in lighter clothing.

For adults, treatments for severe illness from COVID-19 (Paxlovid) or the flu (Tamiflu) are available if they are at risk of severe illness.

Roumeliotis is looking to businesses, agencies, and organizations in our community to show leadership and take the appropriate actions to reduce the spread of respiratory illnesses.