As COVID-19 cases climb in many provinces, flu season is also on the horizon. Doctors say there’s more interest in the flu shot this year — and there should be. But they’re warning patients to get the shot sooner rather than later. Here’s why.
Why is getting the flu shot more important this year?
Doctors and governments say the COVID-19 pandemic makes it more important than ever to get the flu shot because:
- Too many people with flu and flu-related complications can put pressure on the health system, which will likely already be under strain due to COVID-19.
A high vaccination rate can reduce the demand for COVID-19 testing, since the flu and COVID-19 have similar symptoms. Many testing centres have recently seen long lines and wait times due to a surge in demand.
Getting the flu — as with other pre-existing lung diseases — can increase the risk of COVID-19 complications in people who catch that, too.
“If they have the flu, they’re more likely to wind up in hospital and die from COVID-19,” said Dr. Iris Gorfinkel, a family physician and vaccine researcher at Prime Health Clinical Research in Toronto.
The federal government said that this year, it’s raising awareness and promoting the flu vaccine especially to populations at higher risk of flu and flu-related complications, including seniors, people with compromised immune systems and those with chronic medical conditions.
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Is there increased demand for the shot this year?
There appears to be. In May, an online survey of 1,912 adult Canadians found that:
- 57 per cent of respondents said they would probably or definitely get vaccinated this year, compared with 45 per cent who got vaccinated last year.
- 26 per cent of those who were not vaccinated last season said they will definitely get the shot this year, and are more likely to get vaccinated because of COVID-19.
The survey was commissioned by the Canadian Pharmacists Association and conducted by the polling firm Pollara Strategic Insights.
Doctors like Gorfinkel also said they’re getting more inquiries from patients than usual: “People are biting at the bit to get the flu shot this year.”
And it’s not just seniors or adults. Parents also appear more eager to vaccinate their children this year, said Dr. Daniel Flanders, a pediatrician and clinical director of Kindercare Pediatrics in Toronto.
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When can and should people get it?
According to Health Canada, provinces typically start their flu vaccination programs in October or November.
British Columbia’s Ministry of Health said the province will start receiving its flu vaccines in batches from mid-September to November this year, and they will be available to health authorities to distribute to community providers less than a week after that.
P.E.I. said that it had ordered extra doses and ordered them early to make the vaccine available in late September.
Meanwhile, Ontario’s Ministry of Health told CBC News this week that more details on timing will be “available soon.”
Gorfinkel is encouraging patients to get a flu shot “at the first opportunity.”
That includes patients over 65, who have weaker immune systems. They’re generally told to get a special version of the flu shot that has a higher dose, but that may not be widely available as soon as the regular flu shot. Gorfinkel doesn’t recommend that seniors wait for the higher-dose shot if they have the opportunity to get the regular flu shot sooner.
“What matters more is timely vaccination,” Gorfinkel said, noting that it takes two weeks just to get an immune response after the shot.
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What is being done to ensure supplies and access?
Health Canada said provinces and territories are responsible for deciding how much vaccine to purchase for their individual immunization programs. This year, they’ve ordered nearly 13.8 million doses, 2.6 million doses (23 per cent) more than by this time in 2019.
In addition to that, the federal government has created a “small reserve” that provinces and territories can access if needed.
“No supply issues are expected this year,” Health Canada added in an email.
B.C.’s Health Ministry said it has ordered 1.965 million doses of vaccine, or 442,600 (29 per cent) more than last year. It said it is working on a plan for an influenza campaign that will take the higher demand into account, and it’s trying to identify potential large public venues in communities where health authorities want to hold immunization clinics.
Newfoundland and Labrador’s Department of Health said it has purchased 425,400 doses and is aiming for a vaccination rate of 80 per cent, a massive increase from last year, when 158,000 doses were given out. Typically, about 25 to 30 per cent of the population gets vaccinated.
In Ontario, the Health Ministry said this week that the number of doses it will order is “still being discussed through the national process.”
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What challenges could there be?
Gorfinkel said she is concerned about a few potential problems.
- There may not be enough vaccine to meet demand, since no one knows what the actual demand will be. While governments have ordered more vaccine than usual, “whether or not it will prove to be enough remains to be seen,” she said.
- It may not be distributed to the places that need it. Under the current system in Ontario, for example, it’s up to physicians to decide how much they order, Gorfinkel said. Some might order too much, making those doses unavailable for others who need them.
- Access issues linked to the pandemic. Gorfinkel cited potential crowding in pharmacies that offer the shot, the need to book appointments instead of allowing walk-ins and zero tolerance for cold symptoms in public, which could make it harder for some people to get the shot in a timely fashion.
In P.E.I., pharmacists have asked the province for more money to offset the higher costs of additional staff for pre-screening, scheduling and monitoring, as well as for off-site or even drive-thru flu clinics; along with extra costs for personal protective equipment.
Gorfinkel said she’s trying to plan ahead to make sure her Toronto patients get access.
“We may be doing more house calls trying to get it out,” she said. “I haven’t figured out that just yet.”
Flanders agreed that the pandemic makes flu immunization more challenging.
“It’s going to be a lot more difficult for us to immunize the number of people we did last year because of all the safety precautions we have to take,” he added.
He thinks that given all of those issues, the flu shot should be rolled out sooner this year.
“It wouldn’t be too early to start now,” he said. “I think if we get past early to mid-October and we haven’t started it, we’re in trouble.”
Flanders said he’s been trying to get information from the Ontario Heath Ministry about when flu vaccination programs can start and whether it will look different than in other years.
“All we hear is crickets when we reach out to the province and to our local public health units,” he said. “It kind of makes us nervous…. If we don’t act really soon, it’s going to be catastrophic because we’ve got two really dangerous viruses that will be circulating very soon together.”