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While respiratory illnesses level off in B.C., hospitalizations remain high

Dr. Bonnie Henry says this respiratory illness season has been "very unusual."
Hospitalizations due to COVID-19 rose a little bit through December, but that number has been decreasing in recent weeks.

This year's respiratory virus season continues to put pressure on B.C.'s health-care system, but the prevalence of illnesses across the province has begun to decline from the highs seen through December.

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix held a press conference Friday, providing an update on the current situation in B.C. with regards to COVID-19, influenza, RSV and other respiratory illnesses.

While viruses like influenza typically peak around this time of year, Henry said this respiratory illness season has been “very unusual,” with a high number of influenza cases in particular showing up in November and December.

Meanwhile, the number of COVID-19 cases in the province has remained “relatively stable” over the past three months. While the province no longer has accurate testing data for COVID-19, Dix said about 1,000 people in hospitals and other health-care settings continue to get PCR tests every day.

While this data won't capture the total number of cases in the community, combined with other data sources like wastewater surveillance data, Henry said they've been able to keep an eye on trends in rising or declining cases.

“Our data indicate, from these various different sources, that influenza in all age groups has steadily declined from the peak, where we saw about 27 per cent test positivity in late November, down to about five per cent now,” Henry said.

“This has been a very unusual year so it is very important to recognize that we can't necessarily compare this year to previous influenza seasons prior to the pandemic."

She points to the lack of immunity many people, particularly children, have for influenza and other respiratory viruses, after several years of pandemic restrictions.

“There are several cohorts of children who were never exposed to influenza because of all the restrictions we had in place, particularly the restrictions on travel globally,” she said. “There's people whose immune systems haven't developed that protection that they needed.”

Henry noted there have not been any further child deaths due to influenza in recent weeks, beyond the six tragic deaths that occurred in November and early December.

Hospitalizations due to COVID-19 rose a little bit through December, but that number has been decreasing in recent weeks.

Henry also spoke about the newest COVID-19 Omicron variant, XBB.1.5. B.C.'s surveillance data shows about five to six per cent of new COVID-19 cases are this new subvariant. While this new subvariant appears to be particularly transmissible, she said there is no evidence at this time that it's been causing any more severe illness, and she says the latest bivalent vaccine appears to be effective against it.

“The defences we've built through immunization — combinations of vaccine immunity and infection-induced immunity — means we have strong defences as a community across this province,” she said. “We are no longer in a place where we needed to take extraordinary measures ... COVID is not causing any more severe illness than other respiratory infections.”

Dix said as of the end of the day Thursday, 10,116 people are hospitalized in B.C., which is 110 per cent of base beds or 87 per cent of base beds plus surge capacity beds. But locally, hospitals remain stretched.

“There's a decline of about 100 [hospitalizations] from where we were last week, but it's still dramatically high,” Dix said.

“We still have hospitals in B.C., notably in Kelowna, Kamloops, Richmond and in other communities like Burnaby, that are above base and surge bed capacity, and our teams are doing an exceptional job managing that situation ... it's an historically high number.”