Doctors are anticipating that the collision of COVID-19 and cold and flu season could bring a new host of health-care challenges when the cold weather sets in.

Dr. Sandy Buchman, president of the Canadian Medical Association, said the convergence of seasonal infections and a potential second wave of the novel coronavirus could have ripple effects across the medical system and beyond.

“That's going to be a major challenge for family physicians to sort out,” said Buchman.

“Are we going to be able to manage and get the kind of support and backup that is needed?”

Buchman said there are significant similarities between the symptoms of COVID-19 and those of a cold or flu, including coughing, congestion and body aches.

This diagnostic overlap can make it difficult for doctors to distinguish the sniffles from the deadly disease, he said, and the only way to know for sure is through testing.

But Buchman worries that testing centres could be overloaded this winter between a likely surge in false alarms and COVID-19 cases.

“We do have a large (testing) capacity we have built up, but we really have to get it going,” said Buchman.

“Right now, we're in a fairly good space, but that can change on a dime.”

Primary-care doctors will need the support of public health authorities to guide patients about how to proceed if they have COVID-19 symptoms, Buchman said.

For example, as school resumes this fall, he said it's unclear whether classes should be closed while a coughing student waits on their COVID-19 test results.

Canada's chief public health officer Theresa Tam told reporters last week that authorities are bolstering their testing and contact tracing capacities as cold and flu season draws near.

Tam said the agency is helping hospitals prepare for an influx of patients with the flu and other respiratory illness, which could burden emergency rooms, acute-care units and the availability of beds.

She said flu prevention will be key to avoid this strain on resources, and many provinces are mounting a push for people to get vaccinated.

According to a recent study from the University of British Columbia, the COVID-19 pandemic may be motivating more parents to get their children a seasonal flu vaccine.

The survey of 3,000 families from Canada, the United States, Japan, Israel, Spain and Switzerland found 54 per cent of parents planned to vaccinate their children - up 16 percentage points from the previous year.

Dr. James Dickinson, a professor of family medicine and community health sciences at University of Calgary, said there's reason to believe that pandemic-induced precautions could help contain the spread of seasonal infections.

He said the Southern Hemisphere saw a milder cold and flu season this winter in part because of COVID-19 hygiene habits such as hand-washing, wearing masks and physical distancing.

He said it's hard to predict whether these behavioural changes will have a similar effect in Canada as many public places reopen. Schools in particular are “petri dishes” for the circulation of the flu and other viruses, said Dickinson.

Given this uncertainty, Dickinson said it's all the more important that Canadians get their flu vaccines while working to flatten the COVID-19 curve.

“Don't have two curves,” he said. “Let's at least keep the influenza under control.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 19, 2020.