Public health perspective: A Q&A with Dr. Chris Sikora

As a Medical Officer of Health and member of the Public Health Response Team, Dr. Sikora shares insights on staying healthy this season.

Dr. Chris Sikora, Medical Officer of Health, Alberta Health Services and member of the U of A’s Public Health Response Team

The University of Alberta is mindful of the early rise in seasonal infections in Alberta this year. Our goal is to keep our community as healthy as possible throughout exams, the holiday season and into the new year.

We spoke with Dr. Chris Sikora, Edmonton Zone Lead Medical Officer of Health with Alberta Health Services and member of the U of A’s Public Health Response Team, for more insight on the public health situation in our province and steps we can take to keep healthy.

You are the Medical Officer of Health with Alberta Health Services for the Edmonton Zone, and you’re also a member of the U of A’s Public Health Response Team. Can you share an overview of what each of these roles entail?

At Alberta Health Services, we help improve the health of the public through our work in
environmental health, emergency disaster management, disease surveillance, health promotion and communicable disease prevention. We can't do all of this on our own, so we work with many organizations, municipalities and community groups, such as the U of A, to help increase awareness of how people can help protect themselves and keep healthy.

We've had the pleasure of working with colleagues on the U of A Public Health Response Team in helping respond to staff, student and visitor safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. As COVID-19 transitions to being an endemic disease, we've started to work on how people can protect themselves and keep healthy over the respiratory virus season, but also during normal times as well.

With it being influenza season, and with COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses circulating, what steps should U of A community members take to stay healthy?

Fortunately, there are a lot of things we can do to help keep healthy and safe over the respiratory virus season, and we've implemented many of them quite well over the past few years.

Washing your hands with soap and water, or using alcohol-based hand sanitizers, works very well at preventing the spread of infection. A lot of these viruses can live on surfaces for a prolonged period of time, so cleaning high touch surfaces is important, and something all of us can do.

You should stay home when you're sick. We’ve all gotten used to this over the last several years, and we have to continue to stay home if we’re unwell. The university has more information and a number of resources available for you should you need to stay home.

Immunization is also encouraged. Staying up to date with COVID-19 immunizations does help protect against hospitalization, but it’s important to stay up to date on other vaccines like influenza as well. It is important to note that influenza immunization has to be done every year.

Something we can do to reduce transmission, and something that has become much more commonplace, is to wear a face mask. When we talk, cough and sneeze we produce droplets that can reach others. Face masks help interrupt this transmission and prevent droplets from others reaching your nose and mouth. They also prevent you from touching your nose and mouth, reducing transmission through contact. Health Canada continues to recommend masks in indoor public places and has definitions on what constitutes a medical face mask.

Further, taking care of your health by having a healthy diet full of fruits and vegetables, staying physically active and prioritizing your mental health helps ensure you are able to fight off an infection.

What is the difference between these measures and COVID-19 measures? Why is wearing a mask in indoor spaces still important?

There’s not a lot of difference — it’s all related to making sure you’re as healthy as you can be and that your immune system is primed and ready, and taking steps to interrupt transmission.

We have a whole host of respiratory viruses circulating in and around our communities. While their symptoms may be similar — they all mostly cause fever, cough, runny nose, aches and pains — they affect groups differently. Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) usually severely impacts those who are very young, while COVID-19 more adversely impacts those who are older or have multiple medical comorbidities. Influenza typically significantly affects those under five years old, the elderly and those with multiple medical comorbidities, but also those who are pregnant.

Wearing a mask helps protect you and those around you. Our movement patterns have changed in the past year and a half, and now many of us are interacting with many different people in multiple classrooms and work environments every day. A mask is one extra thing that can be easily done to help reduce the probability of transmission during those interactions.

How does the U of A determine its personal health measures?

The U of A’s public health and safety measures are drawn from recommendations from many public health organizations. AHS supports many organizations, including the U of A, in developing their measures by providing overall guidance and direction around what usual public health measures would be recommended.

As a member of the U of A’s Public Health Response Team, I assist the team in monitoring the public health situation in our communities, including most recently the early rise in seasonal infections in Alberta, and ensuring it has the best possible scientific and medical information for making decisions and providing guidance for the U of A community.

What is the outlook for influenza season and early 2023? Will the public health situation in our province be improving?

It's a very stressful time for our community and the health care system, but the very low rates of influenza during the years of COVID-19 shows that taking steps such as practicing good hygiene, staying home when sick, getting vaccinated and wearing face masks can be very effective.

Not only does it speak to our collective abilities to reduce transmission events, it shows how important our personal actions are. The choices we make as employees, students, parents, teachers and citizens impact those around us.

The more we're able to help reduce transmission events overall, the less of an impact the respiratory virus season will have on the system and our community.

We understand that current flu vaccination levels in Alberta are relatively low. What are the benefits to receiving the seasonal flu vaccine and where can individuals go to be vaccinated?

Making the choice to be immunized against influenza builds your immunity so that if you are presented with the virus, you have a good chance of fighting it quickly. It makes your life a lot easier and helps reduce hospitalizations.

Everyone living in Alberta who is over the age of six months is eligible to receive free influenza immunization, including international students. You can always book through the Alberta Vaccine Booking System. Many workplaces offer influenza immunization, and many pharmacies have walk-in appointments, although it's good practice to call ahead of time to make sure they have product onsite and can fit you into their schedule.

What is the data and research that the Medical Officer of Health relies on to make public health recommendations?

We rely on a whole host of different information and take a holistic approach to what is best practice and what's actually achievable within jurisdictions and organizations to be able to help keep people healthy and safe.

One of the biggest sources is monitoring health data, the testing we have available and hospital utilization in near real time to see what the current status is. We also look to resources from other jurisdictions in Canada such as the Government of Canada, Health Canada and Public Health Agency of Canada. Because influenza seems to travel between the northern and southern hemispheres, occasionally we look to see what the experience of influenza was like in Australia.

Recommendations are often based on what we know works for reducing transmission, and we rely upon numerous scientific bodies for this. We've worked closely with the scientific advisory group here in Alberta around COVID-19 recommendations, but we've also relied upon the National Collaborating Centre for Public Health and scientific advisory tables from other provinces for recommendations and advice on best practice. We've also worked with industry organizations around best practice related to things like indoor ventilation systems.

Where can I go for more information?

You can find more information about Alberta’s public health measures on the Government of Alberta’s website. The U of A also has its recommended personal health measures (the HealthyU Essentials) available online.

These illnesses can make you very sick, so if you need medical attention, please seek it. If you are concerned that you are seriously ill, you can visit the nearest emergency department or call 911. For more information or assistance with symptoms you may be experiencing, speaking with your family physician is helpful. You can also visit or access Alberta Health Link by calling 811 to speak with a health-care professional who can help determine the best care for your situation.


Dr. Chris Sikora, Edmonton Zone Lead Medical Officer of Health, Alberta Health Services and member of the U of A’s Public Health Response Team

About Chris

Dr. Chris Sikora is a Public Health Physician based in Edmonton, Alberta. He is presently the Edmonton Zone Lead Medical Officer of Health (Public Health) and Associate Zone Medical Director for Primary Care, Public Health & Addiction and Mental Health for Alberta Health Services. Chris is an Associate Clinical Professor at the University of Alberta in the Department of Medicine, Division of Preventive Medicine, an adjunct faculty member with the University of Alberta School of Public Health and, as of summer 2022, a member of the U of A’s Public Health Response Team who regularly provides insights on public health trends for campus communities.

Dr. Sikora’s work and research focuses on the principles and application of evidence & surveillance for improvement in communicable disease control, immunization programs, and environmental health to support and improve local and provincial public health.