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COVID precautions, along with vaccination, could keep the flu at bay

'Our rates of transmission of the flu should be low this year if we’re doing the things we need to do for COVID prevention,' says Dr. Rebecca Van Iersel
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As we face the double threat of the increasing spread of the COVID-19 virus and the emergence of the flu season, doctors say they are developing strategies to help keep the community safe.

But the bottom line, says Dr. Rebecca Van Iersel, chief of family medicine at Orillia’s Soldiers’ Memorial Hospital and an active member of the Ontario Medical Association (OMA), is that the basic precautions used to ward off the coronavirus — like avoiding large gatherings, handwashing, distancing, wearing masks and not touching the face — are the same for the flu.

And as more people seem to be interested in getting the flu shot this year, the impact of that virus may well be diminished.

“Our rates of transmission of the flu should be low this year if we’re doing the things we need to do for COVID prevention,” said Van Iersel. 

During a recent virtual gathering with OMA president Dr. Samantha Hill, local doctors expressed concerns over COVID-19 and the impact that is having on communities and their ability to practice, said Van Iersel, a family doctor and hospitalist.

The availability of the flu shot arose as another concern in many Simcoe County communities, including Barrie with its larger population.

But, she says there have been successes when medical professionals collaborate to come up with solutions to address both concerns in their own communities. 

“In Orillia, we have a working group between community pharmacists and primary care this year that has helped us to co-ordinate and manage the supply of the vaccine as best we can,” said Van Iersel. “It is always challenging.”

The perennial issue is that only a limited supply of the vaccine can be shipped because of a limited capacity for refrigeration. And that is amplified this year by increased awareness of the risk of viruses and by a health system operating somewhat differently.

Through pharmacists donating their time and using a family doctor’s supply, the Orillia group was able to vaccinate people at a Sunshine City shelter.

“The silver lining with COVID is that we are being forced to rely on a relationship that we spent a lot of years trying to establish and they’re coming to fruition in a perfect way,” she said. “It has been really nice to see the benefit that comes from that in times of need.”

Other areas, such as Collingwood and some areas in Muskoka, function similarly while others are still working on establishing collaborations.

When the pandemic was first declared, Van Iersel was the COVID-unit medical lead at the Orillia hospital. That role was short-lived because the risk was integrated within the general operations of the hospital.

But the medical community, as a whole, continues to address the issue. There are concerns that after eight months of following precautions, people might be letting down their guard, which could lead to complacency.

And there is concern over confusions as the rules and restrictions change, such as adopting a colour coding system.

“The biggest risk in this colour coding is they make sense, but will people understand it enough to actually comply with it,” said Van Iersel.

The bottom line no matter the risk level, she added, is to simply maintain the basic protection protocols enforced throughout the pandemic.

“If we can do that, regardless of what colour code we’re in, we’ll be able to actually start flattening the curve. Because if we don’t flatten the curve, the projections for Christmas are very concerning,” said Van Iersel.

“We are all in this together and we will only get out of this together.”