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Children are bearing the brunt of this year’s flu season, health officials say

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Many Canadian children are spending the holidays battling the flu and other respiratory illnesses — and an early start to the flu season might be partly to blame, pediatricians and public health officials say. 

« We’re seeing a tremendous amount of viral illness [in children], » said Dr. Catherine Farrell, a pediatric intensive care specialist at CHU Sainte-Justine, a pediatric and maternal care hospital in Montreal. 

« Our hospitals are bursting to the seams. Our emergency rooms are really overloaded. Our inpatient units are full and we have a very high occupation rate with respiratory illness in the intensive care unit … and it’s the same with the other intensive care units here in Quebec, » Farrell said. 

There are a few different types of respiratory viruses circulating, she said, including influenza A — which can lead to serious secondary infections, such as pneumonia, that put children in hospital. 

More than three times as many children have been hospitalized with the flu across the country compared to this time last year, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada’s latest FluWatch report

Early start to flu season

As of Dec. 15 (the most recent data available), 8,245 cases of the flu in both adults and children had been confirmed, according to the FluWatch report.  About 10 per cent of those cases — 864 — required hospitalization.  More than 280 of those hospitalizations were children age 16 or under.   

Most of the 47 cases so serious that they required admission to the ICU were children under 10 years of age, the report said.   

At this time last year, there were 2,400 fewer confirmed flu cases in Canada overall — and only 26 children had been hospitalized. 

Respiratory illnesses, including the flu, have hospitals such as CHU Sainte-Justine in Montreal ‘bursting to the seams,’ says pediatric intensive care specialist Dr. Catherine Farrell. (Radio-Canada)

There are a couple of possible reasons for the increased number of hospitalizations among children this year, said Anna Maddison, a spokesperson for the Public Health Agency of Canada, in an email to CBC News. 

« The current flu season began two weeks earlier compared to last year, » she said. It started in mid-October rather than the beginning of November.  

That means it’s possible that by the end of the flu season, the total number of children hospitalized may be the same as last year, but simply happened earlier. 

Different influenza strains

The dominant strain of flu circulating this year — influenza A H1N1 — is also associated with « a higher burden of disease … among children than among adults, » Maddison said. 

Last year, the dominant strain was influenza A H3N2 — a particularly virulent type that made people of all ages very sick, but sent more adults age 65 and over to hospital than children and younger adults.    

Although the flu is « a pretty severe infection » compared to a cold, the majority of people — both children and adults — are able to recover at home without having to go to the hospital, said Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist at Toronto General Hospital. 

Very young children, seniors and people with underlying medical conditions, such as heart or lung disease, are most at risk of becoming so ill they require hospitalization, he said. 

One reason for hospitalization can be pneumonia, which is a « very well-known complication of influenza , » Bogoch said. 

Pneumonia concerns

Both CHU Sainte-Justine in Montreal and The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) in Toronto say they have seen many children with pneumonia recently, although it’s not clear whether those cases are linked to the flu. 

« We typically see many kids presenting with pneumonia at this time of the year. Anecdotally, we have seen high volumes of children presenting with pneumonia over the past few weeks, » Jessamine Luck, a SickKids spokesperson, told CBC News in an email.  

« Pneumonia can be related to influenza but it can also be caused by other viral and bacterial illnesses in children. »

But unlike most of those other illnesses, there is a vaccine for influenza, said Farrell, who is also president of the Canadian Paediatric Society.  

It’s not too late for parents to get their children the flu shot, she said.

Public health officials have acknowledged that last year’s flu vaccine was disappointing, with a low effectiveness rate. Although it’s too soon to measure the effectiveness this year’s version, some early indicators are promising, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. 

The flu vaccine can be given to children with either a needle or nasal spray. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

Based on laboratory comparisons between the form of H1N1 virus built into the vaccine and the form of the virus that has actually emerged as the dominant strain, « the vaccine component this season appears to be a good match against the H1N1 viruses that are predominantly circulating in Canada, » Maddison said.   

In addition, preliminary data from Australia — which already had its flu season — showed that people who had been vaccinated this year were 68 per cent less likely to see a doctor or nurse practitioner for the flu compared to unvaccinated people, she said. 

Choosing to get the flu shot — for yourself and for your children — is a « no-brainer, » Bogoch said.

« [It’s] likely to be much, much better than last year, » he said. 

But even if it weren’t, the flu shot does more than prevent the virus, he said, noting that data suggests the vaccine can also help reduce the severity of infection — which in turn could prevent hospitalizations.

When to seek medical attention for your child

With an increased number of children falling ill with the flu and other respiratory illnesses this time of year, CBC News asked Dr. Jonathan Gubbay, a pediatric infectious disease physician and medical microbiologist with Public Health Ontario for his advice to parents. 

From a prevention standpoint, the best things parents can do is have their children vaccinated against the flu, make sure they are washing their hands and keep them home from school if they are sick so they don’t spread the virus to others, he said. 

When their children are sick, parents should watch for signs of an « acute » respiratory infection, including pneumonia. Those signs include:

  • A fever that doesn’t get better within a couple of days.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Breathing rapidly.

If children show any of those symptoms, parents should take them to see their doctor or nurse practitioner, or to the hospital, Gubbay said. 

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‘Business as usual’ for Dorel Industries after terminating go-private deal

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MONTREAL — Dorel Industries Inc. says it will continue to pursue its business strategy going forward after terminating an agreement to go private after discussions with shareholders.

« Moving ahead. Business as usual, » a spokesman for the company said in an email on Monday.

A group led by Cerberus Capital Management had previously agreed to buy outstanding shares of Dorel for $16 apiece, except for shares owned by the family that controls the company’s multiple-voting shares.

But Dorel chief executive Martin Schwartz said the Montreal-based maker of car seats, strollers, bicycles and home furniture pulled the plug on a deal on the eve of Tuesday’s special meeting after reviewing votes from shareholders.

“Independent shareholders have clearly expressed their confidence in Dorel’s future and the greater potential for Dorel as a public entity, » he said in a news release.

Dorel’s board of directors, with Martin Schwartz, Alan Schwartz, Jeffrey Schwartz and Jeff Segel recused, unanimously approved the deal’s termination upon the recommendation of a special committee.

The transaction required approval by two-thirds of the votes cast, and more than 50 per cent of the votes cast by non-family shareholders.

Schwartz said enhancing shareholder value remains a top priority while it stays focused on growing its brands, which include Schwinn and Mongoose bikes, Safety 1st-brand car seats and DHP Furniture.

Dorel said the move to end the go-private deal was mutual, despite the funds’ increased purchase price offer earlier this year.

It said there is no break fee applicable in this case.

Montreal-based investment firm Letko, Brosseau & Associates Inc. and San Diego’s Brandes Investment Partners LP, which together control more than 19 per cent of Dorel’s outstanding class B subordinate shares voiced their opposition to the amended offer, which was increased from the initial Nov. 2 offer of $14.50 per share.

« We believe that several minority shareholders shared our opinion, » said Letko vice-president Stephane Lebrun, during a phone interview.

« We are confident of the long-term potential of the company and we have confidence in the managers in place.”

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Pandemic funds helping Montreal businesses build for a better tomorrow

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Many entrepreneurs have had to tap into government loans during the pandemic, at first just to survive, but now some are using the money to better prepare their businesses for the post-COVID future.

One of those businesses is Del Friscos, a popular family restaurant in Dollard-des-Ormeaux that, like many Montreal-area restaurants, has had to adapt from a sit-down establishment to one that takes orders online for takeout or delivery.

“It was hard going from totally in-house seating,” said Del Friscos co-owner Terry Konstas. “We didn’t have an in-house delivery system, which we quickly added. There were so many of our employees that were laid off that wanted to work so we adapted to a delivery system and added platforms like Uber and DoorDash.”

Helping them through the transition were emergency grants and low-interest loans from the federal and provincial governments, some of which are directly administered by PME MTL, a non-profit business-development organization established to assist the island’s small and medium-sized businesses.

Konstas said he had never even heard of PME MTL until a customer told him about them and when he got in touch, he discovered there were many government programs available to help his business get through the downturn and build for the future. “They’ve been very helpful right from day one,” said Konstas.

“We used some of the funds to catch up on our suppliers and our rents, the part that wasn’t covered from the federal side, and we used some of it for our new virtual concepts,” he said, referring to a virtual kitchen model which the restaurant has since adopted.

The virtual kitchen lets them create completely different menu items from the casual American Italian dishes that Del Friscos is known for and market them under different restaurant brand names. Under the Prasinó Soup & Salad banner, they sell healthy Greek options and their Stallone’s Sub Shop brand offers hearty sandwiches, yet the food from both is created in the same Del Friscos kitchen.

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Downtown Montreal office, retail vacancies continue to rise

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Some of downtown Montreal’s key economic indicators are heading in the wrong direction.

Office and retail vacancies in the city’s central core continued to climb in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to a quarterly report released Thursday by the Urban Development Institute of Quebec and the Montréal Centre-Ville merchants association. The report, whose first edition was published in October, aims to paint a socio-economic picture of the downtown area.

The survey also found office space available for sublet had increased during the fourth quarter, which may foreshadow even more vacancies when leases expire. On the residential front, condo sales fell as new listings soared — a sign that the downtown area may be losing some of its appeal to homeowners.

“It’s impossible not to be preoccupied by the rapid increase in office vacancies,” Jean-Marc Fournier, the former Quebec politician who now heads the UDI, said Thursday in an interview.

Still, with COVID-19 vaccinations set to accelerate in the coming months, “the economic picture is bound to improve,” he said. “People will start returning downtown. It’s much too early to say the office market is going to disappear.”

Public health measures implemented since the start of the pandemic almost a year ago — such as caps on office capacity — have deprived downtown Montreal of more than 500,000 workers and students. A mere 4,163 university and CEGEP students attended in-person classes in the second quarter, the most recent period for which figures are available. Border closures and travel restrictions have also brought tourism to a standstill, hurting hotels and thousands of local businesses.

Seventy per cent of downtown workers carried out their professional activities at home more than three days a week during the fourth quarter, the report said, citing an online survey of 1,000 Montreal-area residents conducted last month.

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