TORONTO -- Ontario experts are urging everyone to get their flu shot this year in order to prevent the health-care system from being flooded with both influenza and COVID-19 patients as the province grapples with a potential second wave.

Speaking with CTV News Toronto, infectious disease specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch said while it’s important to get the vaccine every year, it’s even more important during a global pandemic.

“People often think it’s just the sniffles or a cold, but it’s not,” Bogoch said. “It can be a very, very serious infection, especially in elderly populations, in young children and in people with underlying medical conditions.”

“It’s nasty and it’s incredible that a vaccine is available.” 

According to the Ontario Medical Association (OMA), influenza kills an estimated 3,500 Canadians and hospitalizes 12,000 Canadians in a year—yet only about 40 per cent of the adult population gets the flu shot. 

This year, with the threat of a COVID-19 resurgence, experts are saying that getting the flu shot will not only protect an individual from influenza, but it may also help prevent the spread of the virus to others and help keep people out of health-care centres.

Dr. Samantha Hill, president of the OMA, told CTV News Toronto that if an outbreak of influenza happened as the province was dealing with a second wave of COVID-19 it would “really strain the system, which is already working overtime to prevent surges in hospitals and community clinics.” 

“With COVID-19 at the moment, all we can do is social distancing and hand hygiene and masking. But with the flu, we do have the option of getting the flu vaccine that, you know, depending on the year is variably effective but it is our best defense.”

Speaking on the potential strain on the health-care system, Bogoch added “we know it’s already going to be busy with COVID-19 cases, especially in the fall, in the winter.”

“If we can reduce the burden on the health-care system through high uptake of influenza vaccine, we’ll be doing something right. Anyone who is on the fence, this is the year to get it.”


When is the flu shot going to be available in Ontario?

Experts say the flu shot should be available in the next few weeks, but the Ontario Ministry of Health was unable to confirm that information. In an email to CTV News Toronto, a spokesperson said the ministry is working with the federal government and participating programs to gain access to the influenza vaccine “as soon as possible this fall.” 

“More details on timing for influenza vaccination will (be) available soon.” 

The ministry has also not confirmed how many doses of the vaccine they will be ordering, but said they ordered 4.72 million doses for the 2019-2020 influenza season in Ontario.

“Ontario has been working with federal, provincial and territorial partners through the National Bulk Purchasing Program to secure additional doses of influenza vaccine for the 2020-2021 season,” the ministry said. “Ontario has ordered more of the high dose vaccine to further protect seniors.”

Hill said that while people may think it would have been better for the flu shot to be rolled out earlier, it’s done in the fall because the influenza virus can continue to mutate throughout the flu season.

“One of the reasons it doesn't get rolled out in like, August, is because by the time the main flu season came around, you would have essentially selected out for a virus that isn't part of that stream.”

“In some ways the more effective, the vaccine is, the more other streams will try and populate.”

Hill added that it will be important to prioritize the high-dosage flu shot for seniors and those with acute medical conditions as there will likely be a limited supply.


If you think you have the flu, what should you do?

The symptoms of COVID-19 and influenza are incredibly similar—so much so that doctors say there is pretty much no clinical way to distinguish the two.

Symptoms that overlap can include fever, cough, fatigue, sore throat, runny nose, muscle pain and headaches.  

Instead of going into a doctor’s office, the OMA is urging anyone who experiences these symptoms to stay home, call their physician or Telehealth Ontario, and get a COVID-19 test if necessary. 

“Try not to go out in public unless you have to,” Hill said. “So, you shouldn't be going, not just to your doctor's office, but you shouldn't be going to work, you shouldn't be going shopping, you shouldn't be going for a walk in the park unless you absolutely need to get something and there's no one else who can help you. As soon as you start to have any of the COVID symptoms you should basically be self-isolating.”

At the same time, Hill added that physicians are available to see patients in-person if someone is feeling unwell.

“Call your doctor figure out what the best way to move forward is,” she said.

“It is important to remember those two facts, that one is once you start to get sick you should be staying home, and that if you're really not feeling well or even if you're not sure, that you can always call your doctor for more information and more advice.”

Are doctors prepared for the flu season this year?

Both Hill and Bogoch have said that while many physicians have moved some of their services online, they are prepared to provide the flu shot in-person.

“I think this stage in the game is, we know what physical distancing is, we know what mask wearing is, we know what hand hygiene is,” Bogoch said. “I think we will be able to (distribute the flu shot) in a safe and responsible manner.”

The OMA agreed, but also said they are working with the government to help create more physically distanced spaces for people to get their flu shot and to ensure that health-care workers have enough personal protective equipment. 

“A lot of physician’s offices aren't modifiable,” Hill added. “They lack the kind of infrastructure that you need to safely see the volume of the patients, which is why they have been seeing them by virtual care when possible.”

“It's challenging to visualize being able to see the 340,000 patients a day that Ontario doctors were seeing without other systemic changes and that's been part of an ongoing discussion that we've been having with government and we are committed to working collaboratively.”


Who should get the flu shot?

The flu season typically runs from late fall to early spring. It is recommended that everyone older than six months should get the flu shot. Those under the age of four should get it at their doctor’s office or a local public health unit, while anyone else is permitted to get it at a pharmacy or clinic. 

For those over the age of 65, there is a high-dose vaccine available.

Officials say that it takes about two weeks for the vaccine to take effect.

At the same time, health professionals are still urging everyone to remain vigilant and practice proper hand hygiene and physical distancing—as both will help curb the spread of COVID-19 and the flu. 

“Especially as everyone's going back to school and things are getting hairier and the numbers are climbing up a little bit. We knew that this was going to be what the fall looks like, it's not a surprise to anyone. But I think people are getting tired,” Hill said. 

“We're all in this together.”