Flu activity is picking up in Penticton, and officials are hoping a new province-wide policy requiring some visitors to wear masks at health facilities will help slow the spread of the illness.
“Across B.C. we are seeing increased influenza activity, but it’s still at fairly low levels,” said Dr. Mark Lysyshyn, a public health physician for Interior Health.
“People are definitely seeing their doctors for flu-like symptoms, but so far labs are mainly detecting other viruses — cough and cold viruses — as opposed to flu viruses.”
Lysyshyn said pure statistics on the number of influenza cases in B.C. this fall are not available, but nothing he’s seen suggests this year’s infection rate is out of the ordinary.
He also noted that flu season doesn’t usually peak until sometime between January and March.
“This is the perfect time to get a flu shot, because it takes about two weeks to get immunity from receiving the shot,” said Lysyshyn.
Tara Kamann, a pharmacist at Riverside Pharmasave in Penticton, said her shop began offering flu shots in mid-October and has seen a big year-over-year surge.
“We’ve only been open two years, (but) we’ve done twice as many as we did last year. Is that across the board? It’s really hard to say since we’re so new,” she said.
“It’s a good opportunity for people to get other vaccinations as well,” Kamann added, noting she’s available for consultations with people like seniors, pregnant women and others who may be eligible for free shots.
As of this week, anyone who hasn’t been vaccinated will be asked to strap on a mask when they enter a hospital, long-term care home or other health-care facility in B.C.
“People in hospitals and facilities are very vulnerable, and it is possible they could get influenza from people who themselves are not very symptomatic but could transmit the infection,” explained Lysyshyn.
He’s not aware of any other provinces that have such a policy, but said some states south of the border do.
The masks will be distributed at facilities free of charge and the policy won’t be strictly enforced, but rather will rely on the honour system.
Acting provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said in a statement the new policy is an extension of a rule implemented last year that requires unvaccinated health-care workers to wear masks, and adds “another layer of protection for our patients.”
Henry said the new policy does not mean officials are preparing for an extraordinary flu caseload, although “it is very difficult to predict how the influenza season will play out.”
It’s also been a routine start to flu season at the Okanagan Skaha School District, which has about 6,000 students and 900 permanent and casual workers, making it one of the largest employers in Penticton.
“We have had a couple of schools report absences over 10 per cent the past couple of days, but this is not out of the ordinary for us,” said superintendent Wendy Hyer.
For more information on flu clinic locations, or to find out if you’re eligible for a free shot, visit www.immmunizebc.ca.