You can avoid getting sick as we head into fall, says Peterborough’s medical officer of health

Dr. Thomas Piggott shares what you can do to make prevention your personal health goal this respiratory virus season

A mother taking the temperature of a sick child. (Stock photo)

As we head into the fourth fall of the pandemic, sick of COVID-19 or not, we now know a lot about how not to get sick from COVID-19.

Before the pandemic, public health worked to prevent seasonal respiratory illnesses, such as influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), among others. When the World Health Organization declared the global emergency from COVID-19 over in May of this past year, the ‘new normal’ we’ve discovered is a lot different from what respiratory illness season looked like in the past.

Local outbreak data makes the degree of this change clear. Before March 2020, we had an average of 20 to 30 respiratory outbreaks in retirement and long-term care homes every year. In 2023, we have already had over 70 outbreaks, and fall has only just begun. This is less than the 170 outbreaks our region had in 2022, but far more than we had before the pandemic.

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Clearly, ‘normal’ has changed. With that, our approach to preventing illness must change as well. We have learned a lot about how to stop respiratory viruses, including COVID-19, over the past four years. Now is the time to apply these lessons to prevent illness this fall and winter.

Fortunately, we are entering the respiratory virus season with much better evidence to reduce the risk of transmission. One of these resources is Peterborough Public Health’s COVID-19 and Respiratory Virus Risk Index, which is updated weekly on Wednesday afternoon.

The index consolidates everything that we have learned throughout the pandemic about how to reduce and manage risk, and it is a very good resource to help you make personal health decisions this fall. We even know of at least one local church that has decided to put it in their weekly bulletin.

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While this year is different, and life looks a lot more normal compared to what we’ve experienced over the past three years, we should still be doing our best to prevent getting sick. Prevention should be our goal for many reasons, not least of which because COVID-19 continues to impact our health.

Consider, for example, that over 2,000 people have died this year in Canada from COVID-19, and many remain at high risk for serious health complications.

What’s more, long COVID or post-COVID condition are resulting in lasting health complications, and emerging evidence has shown older Canadians are at increased risk of re-infection.

Ultimately, however, prevention remains worthwhile because, really, who likes getting sick?

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There is much you can do to make prevention your personal health goal this respiratory virus season. First and foremost, if you get sick, stay home to prevent others from getting sick. You can also continue to test for COVID-19 using rapid antigen tests, which are available for free from Peterborough Public Health and elsewhere in the community.

Testing is important if you’re eligible for antiviral treatment, because the medication needs to be started within five days from the start of symptoms. Anti-viral treatment can reduce risk of hospitalization by 90 per cent, and for this reason is a very helpful and possibly lifesaving tool for eligible residents at high risk of complications from COVID-19.

We have also learned that COVID-19 transmits via aerosols, or the airborne route. This means that the air you breathe is important to preventing infection as well. Strive to spend more time outside while the weather permits. As temperatures drop, ensure effective ventilation by keeping windows and doors open, or by using air filtration to clean the air you’re breathing. If risk levels increase, wearing an N95/KN95 style mask is a key measure you can take to prevent yourself and those around you from getting sick.

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Lastly, one of the best ways you can protect yourself is to be up-to-date with COVID-19 and influenza vaccinations. For most people, the benefit of an additional dose of COVID-19 vaccination with the new XBB variant booster will quite simply outweigh the risk of getting sick, and it will be a good idea to roll up your sleeve again. For those at higher risk because of age or health status, accessing a booster shot is very important.

There will also be a new, publicly funded RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) vaccine campaign to protect residents 60 years and older in long-term care who are at high risk. As always, if you have questions or concerns about vaccines, you should talk to your health care provider.

To some, this may sound like a lot, but think about it like the pre-season warmup for your immune system so you’re ready to fight off viruses this coming respiratory season. If you have questions as we head into fall, I am hosting an event on Peterborough Public Health’s Instagram @ptbopublichealth at 5 p.m. on Thursday (September 28). Please bring any questions you have and I will be able to answer them live. Peterborough Public Health is here to help you make prevention your goal.