Quebec suffers a major flu wave and emergency room visits increase by 10 percent

“It is not that COVID is not worrying, but our big problem is the flu,” Health Minister Christian Dubé said on Wednesday. “And you can get vaccinated against both.”

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The resurgence of influenza is largely responsible for the sharp increase in emergency room visits and hospitalizations across Quebec, a scenario that could last for many more weeks, health officials warned Wednesday.

“It’s going to be difficult for the next few months,” Health Minister Christian Dubé said at a news conference during which he revealed graphs of sobering statistics about the level of contagion in Quebec.

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“Maybe COVID isn’t as bad right now, but the flu is still on the rise. The clear message we have is that, in the case of influenza (and COVID), vaccination can make a difference.

“It’s not that COVID is not worrying, but our big problem is the flu,” Dubé added. “And you can get vaccinated for both. There are people (in the vaccination centers) who are waiting for you.”

Nearly 250 Quebecers a day are hospitalized for flu, COVID and other respiratory infections, putting the province’s health system under enormous pressure. Over the past 14 days, the province has reported a daily average of 10,057 emergency visits, up 10 per cent from the corresponding period last year.

Most of that increase is due to patients suffering from the flu and upper respiratory infections, and more than 1,900 Quebecers a day go to emergency rooms with these symptoms. That’s up from just over 1,000 daily emergency room visits for flu and other respiratory infections this time last year.

“The numbers are increasing and it is a challenge for doctors and emergency room teams,” said Dr. Luc Boileau, Quebec’s public health director.

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A graph shows the number of emergency visits in Quebec
Source: Quebec Ministry of Health

Boileau echoed Dubé’s call for the public to get vaccinated against COVID and flu, saying it is not too late to get vaccinated as the flu season has not yet peaked in Quebec. He added that people develop antibodies against the flu within days of receiving the vaccine.

Currently, only 60 per cent of Quebecers over the age of 70 have been vaccinated against the flu. The dominant flu strain responsible for this year’s wave is type A (H1N1), although type B is also circulating, both covered by vaccines.

Although Dubé appeared to downplay the impact of COVID on the province, the government’s own figures reveal that the pandemic disease is responsible for at least 50 emergency room hospitalizations each day, and that number is rising. This trend coincides with a COVID rebound in the United States driven by the JN.1 subvariant, which also predominates in Quebec.

Meanwhile, at least 1,000 patients who need to be hospitalized languish on gurneys in emergency room hallways, sometimes for days, acknowledged Dr. Gilbert Boucher, president of the Association of Emergency Medicine Specialists.

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Boucher noted that emergency rooms are particularly overcrowded in the Greater Montreal region. But he expressed some optimism, as many hospital workers are returning to work after the holidays and their attendance should ease pressure on the health network.

He said what’s different this year from last year is that the previous flu season peaked in late November 2022.

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Dubé, Boileau and Boucher last held a press conference on Quebec’s emergency crisis on December 19, during which the Health Minister appeared to blame part of the overcrowding on “a large percentage of people who consult in the department emergency and do not have an urgent problem.”

That comment prompted a harsh rebuke from the Canadian Association of Emergency Physicians (CAEP) on Wednesday. A CAEP spokesperson said he was “concerned” by Dubé’s comments and added that if patients feel they need urgent health care, they should not hesitate to go to the emergency room.

“We’re sorry if that message wasn’t clear,” Boucher said Wednesday, adding that if people have really urgent concerns about their health, they shouldn’t hesitate to go to the emergency room. However, he noted that emergency rooms in Ottawa and Vancouver are not as overcrowded as those in Quebec.

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