A view of the CN Tower in Toronto, Ontario (AFP / Valerie Macon)

Flu and Covid-19 tracked separately in Canada

Copyright AFP 2017-2020. All rights reserved.

Facebook and Instagram posts in Canada are sharing a chart showing only six reported cases of the flu for this season alongside claims that the government is falsely passing off flu cases as Covid-19. The claims are false; influenza and Covid-19 are tested, tracked and reported separately by the provinces and territories, and public health measures against the novel coronavirus have also contributed to fewer flu cases than usual.

“Looks like they found a cure for the flu... only 6 cases in 2020 compared to the 42,541 flu cases last year in Canada. What do you think is going on? Very suspicious...maybe they are classifying flu cases as CV cases,” says a Facebook post from October 12, 2020. 

Screenshot of a Facebook post take on October 19, 2020

A second post, sharing the same chart, raised similar suspicions: “So...in 2020 year to date there is only 6 cases of Flu? How did we go from 42,000+ cases of FLU to 6 during covid19? Could it be because COVID19 is the flu with a fancy name?”

The date in the screenshot of the chart suggests the data are from September 19, 2020 and links to Infection Prevention and Control (IPAC) Canada, an association working to promote infection control best practices.

The chart is no longer on the IPAC site. Instead it directs people to the Respiratory Virus Report and to the FluWatch Report from the Public Health Agency of Canada, for the latest data.

In an email statement sent to AFP, IPAC Canada said: “This chart was providing confusion without context and we determined the best course of action given the circumstances was to direct people to the Public Health Agency of Canada’s compiled reports, rather than publishing our own overview of the data.”

In the week that ended September 19, 2020, FluWatch did report six positive influenza tests.

Screenshot taken of the FluWatch report August 23 to September 19, 2020

More posts including the IPAC chart were shared about a thousand times on Facebook here, here and here and on Instagram here and here.

One Facebook account known for spreading coronavirus misinformation used it to claim that the flu had been “eradicated” in Canada.

Dr Joseph Kim, Medical Director for IPAC, cautioned against using a flu case count from September as a justification to deny that there is influenza risk.

He said by phone, “ongoing flu activity can certainly vary from week to week.”

Dr Ann Collins, president of the Canadian Medical Association, agreed, explaining that the influx of flu cases rarely begins prior to mid-October and usually peaks during the winter months. 

“To suggest that the influenza virus was eradicated in 2020 is extremely misleading,” she said in an email.

Tracking cases

Coronavirus cases are reported by each province and territory and updated daily here.

More than 222,000 cases of Covid-19, including more than 10,000 deaths, have been recorded in Canada as of October 27. A spike in new cases was reported following Thanksgiving.

Canada uses PCR tests to detect Covid-19 infections. 

Heath Canada also approved limited antibody and antigen testing to detect if a person has been infected with Covid-19. 

Who qualifies to receive such tests and how they are used in the recording of cases differs in each province and territory. 

The flu is tested and tracked separately from Covid-19, and Health Canada issues weekly influenza reports which can be found here.

Dr Michelle Murti of Public Health Ontario confirmed that they continued to test for the flu throughout the pandemic.

The most recent FluWatch report for October 11-17 says: “Testing for influenza continues at elevated levels; however, influenza activity remains below average for this time of year.”

From October 11-17, Canada reported only 0.02 percent of flu tests as positive, compared to 2.2 percent during the past six seasons.

Public health measures including increased hand hygiene, practicing social distancing and mask-wearing helped to curb the spread of influenza, not just Covid-19 around the world.

Murti explained that the reproduction number, or the average number of people that one infected person will pass the virus to, is lower for influenza than for Covid-19, so with increased precautions, the rate of flu infection drops faster than the coronavirus. 

“Places like Australia had almost no influenza activity throughout their winter season this past year, and really a lot of that attributing to the fact that people are doing the public health measures associated with the pandemic,” she said.

Experts also caution that this season's flu data may not be fully comparable with past years, as members of the public with concerns about visiting doctors’ offices during the pandemic may have led to fewer patients seeking treatment or testing. 

Flu shot needed

Despite the increased focus on public health measures, Canada’s National Advisory Committee on Immunization strongly encourages people to receive the flu vaccine during the pandemic.

CMA’s Collins said, “What we are learning from Southern Hemisphere countries at the moment is that there was a noted decrease in the number of flu cases, but there was also a significant increase in the number of people requesting vaccination, which helps in reducing the flu.”

Ontario’s Murti also noted higher than usual uptake of the flu vaccine during the winter in Australia

“The more we can do to prevent influenza as much as possible, it will make dealing with Covid that much easier,” she said.

The flu vaccine is a regular target of disinformation. Find more of AFP Fact Check’s articles on the topic in English here.

CORONAVIRUS