With the fall and colder weather fast approaching, the Ontario College of Family Physicians (OCFP) is encouraging the public to take proactive steps to prevent respiratory illnesses like COVID-19, influenza, and Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).
“Fall is notoriously a time when people start to move indoors. There are special occasions (where) we congregate. It is also a time of year where viruses tend to really like to find humans to infect them,” said Orillia family doctor and OCFP board member Dr. Kim McIntosh.
Actions like hand-washing, keeping a bottle of hand sanitizer available, and taking general "health-positive steps" can go a long way in preventing illness, McIntosh said.
Staying home if you’re ill, getting vaccines for influenza and COVID-19, and wearing a mask if ill or around vulnerable people adds additional layers of protection to spreading illness.
“It goes right back to basics, such as hydrate, stay active, eat healthy, get restorative sleep, and then extends right up to things we know quite well now having come out of pandemic, and are still very important, and that is layered protection,” she said.
With new strains of COVID-19 emerging, Health Canada recently approved a new vaccine for anyone over six months of age, which will be released to the public in the coming weeks.
McIntosh encourages the public to access COVID-19 and influenza vaccines this fall, noting that high rates of vaccination have been key to reducing the amount of severe illness in the public over time.
“Appreciating we are all very tired of hearing about COVID … people are not getting as sick because of the vaccination that has taken place in this province,” she said. “Vaccination has actually shown to be our No. 1 way to reduce how many people get sick and how sick they get if they do contract COVID.”
“You can access a COVID vaccine, this newer version, when you have been six months from your previous vaccine or six months from previous COVID infection.”
For the vulnerable population, including those who are unvaccinated, McIntosh encourages high-risk individuals to make plans in case a respiratory illness is contracted.
Antiviral COVID-19 treatments, like Paxlovid, need to be taken within the first five days of symptoms appearing. Others, like Remdesivir, need to be taken within seven days of symptoms appearing.
“If you are worried you might get sicker with an infection like COVID, you should try to make a plan in advance around having rapid antigen tests available to you,” McIntosh said.
“There is an avenue for antiviral therapy that is specifically for those who are at highest risk of getting extra sick, so if individuals feel they are at increased risk they should reach out to their primary care provider, their family physician, and make a plan in advance.”
For those that do get sick this fall, including families and children, McIntosh encouraged families “not to panic.”
“Kids are going to get colds. They're going to have viral illnesses, respiratory infections, and managing those infections can be very time- and parent-intensive, but not to panic, there are many resources to help parents manage kids at home,” she said.
There are also a variety of local resources for people experiencing more severe symptoms, like laboured breathing.
“Obviously, the emergency department is an option, as always – Orillia Soldiers' Memorial is an amazing emergency department,” she said. “If you're wondering about how things are going and you want more information or access, your family physician can certainly be a resource.”
For those without family physicians, there is also the Couchiching Ontario Health Team care clinic on Colborne Street, which is open Monday to Friday.