Canadian doctors are worried about flu season.
We’ve already heard about the concern that a rise in flu cases alongside the COVID-19 pandemic could lead to a “twindemic,” where hospitals are overwhelmed and left without enough space or resources.
But there’s another issue that could complicate flu season: vaccine shortages. The shortage isn’t a pressing issue on its own, but when combined with increased demand for the vaccine and a slower vaccination process due to pandemic precautions, it could lead to what the Pediatrics Department of the Ontario Medical Association called a “potentially devastating collision course.”
Vaccine shortage is a problem even in non-pandemic years
“There’s always a flu vaccine shortage. We don’t ever get as many vaccines as we asked for,” Toronto pediatrician Dr. Dina Kulik told HuffPost Canada. But typically, most of the people who seek out the flu vaccine can find it somewhere, she said.
Only 42 per cent of Canadians got the vaccine last year, up from 38 per cent the year before, according to Statistics Canada. Many people prefer not to get vaccines that aren’t mandatory, Kulik said, and many don’t think of the flu as serious.
“Some people think the flu is a mild illness, and they’re not aware that it can cause significant illness or even death,” she said. An average of 3,500 people in Canada die from the flu every year.
This year, there’s significantly more interest
This year, there seems to be unprecedented interest in getting the flu vaccine, according to Ryan Doherty. He’s the president and founder of Empower Health, which provides localized information about healthcare providers across Canada.
One of the tools the organization offers is designed to show users where they can find flu shots in their area. Because vaccines won’t become available until mid-October, the site is currently letting people sign up to receive alerts once there are vaccines available in their area. Major pharmacy brands, such as Rexall and Shoppers Drug Mart, are also encouraging people to sign up for alerts online.
“There are a lot people looking for flu shots now,” Doherty told HuffPost Canada. He doesn’t have specific data yet, since they just launched the notification feature last week, but the demand appears to be earlier and stronger than in previous years.
Watch: How to protect yourself from the flu. Story continues after video.
“Internationally, there is a trend in Australia and other other areas where there was a significant uptick in terms of people trying to get flu shots earlier,” he said. Australia ordered a record number of flu vaccines and reported just 36 confirmed flu deaths between January and July. The year before, that number was 383.
A poll conducted by Shopper’s Drug Mart found that 60 per cent of Canadians say they plan to get the flu shot. While that’s more than in previous years, it still leaves a broad part of the population unprotected. Of the people who said they don’t plan on getting the shot, 73 per cent said they “made it through COVID-19,” so weren’t worried about the flu.
Like Australia, Canada has also ordered several million more flu shot doses than usual. But doctors and pharmacists are still facing other supply issues.
Medical supply shortage
“Even if we have flu shot tomorrow, we don’t have enough needles to provide more flu shots,” Kulik said. “There’s already a backorder in Ontario of needles.”
The government provides doctors with the vaccine itself, but not with the needles or syringes or masks or gloves used to administer them. Many medical supply companies have simply run out of stock, given the unprecedented demand for PPE this year.
Timing is also an important issue when it comes to vaccines. It takes two weeks for the flu shot to build up antibodies, so you’re not fully protected from the flu until two weeks after being vaccinated.
Vaccines will likely require appointments
Another factor that could complicate this year’s flu season, Doherty said, is that for a lot of people, especially families, vaccines happen alongside regular checkups at the doctor’s office. That isn’t possible this year.
“In many cases, as the family doctor sees their patient on a regular basis for for other reasons, they would just offer them the vaccine,” he explained. “Because of COVID, the majority of visits to family doctors are virtual now.”
Other people seeking out the flu vaccine might just stop by a pharmacy to get it done in regular years. But the National Advisory Committee on Immunization, which makes recommendations to Health Canada, has suggested that people seeking flu shots at pharmacies will require appointments.
But most pharmacies haven’t had appointment-based services in the past, particularly the smaller non-chain stores. “The management might be a bit of a hurdle for some. That will also be another game changer this year,” Doherty said.
Pediatricians want a solid vaccine plan
In Ontario, doctors are hoping the province will implement a plan to offer large-scale, community-based vaccine clinics. A petition to that effect has been signed by more than 700 people. At least 300 of those are Ontario pediatricians, Kulik among them.
Her ideal plan would see vaccinations happen outdoors, maybe in a large tent, heated if necessary. “I envision a clinic that ideally could take place outdoors, where many families can be seen in a day and given the shot,” she said.
“We know COVID transmission is less outdoors, and bringing people into a physical location like an office, it’s impossible to maintain distance.”
Planning an outdoor clinic is a very time-sensitive endeavour, given that most parts of the country are getting colder. And given the two-week antibody-building period, “it’s important to do it as soon as we can,” she said. “Delaying it is only adding risk.”
Ontario’s provincial government hasn’t signed on to such a specific plan, but on Tuesday it did unveil flu precautions that include supplying 700,000 more flu dosages than last year, with priority distribution for people in long-term care homes and hospitals.