Pharmacist Glen Sisak assists a customer. VOICE FILE

Limited supply as seasonal vaccine is distributed earlier than usual

As if COVID wasn’t bad enough, we are now entering the annual flu season. Health experts are encouraging flu shots in an effort to avoid a “twindemic,” when both influenza and the coronavirus circulate at high levels of infection at the same time.

Anticipating an increased demand for the flu shot, the Public Health Agency of Canada has reported that the provinces have ordered a record 13.7 million doses of the vaccine, up over 20% from last fall.

Publicly funded influenza vaccines are available in Ontario as part of the Universal Influenza Immunization Program (UIIP). The Ford government is implementing the largest flu immunization campaign in the province’s history, part of a comprehensive plan to prepare the health system for a second wave of COVID-19.

Almost $70 million has been invested to purchase 5.1 million flu vaccine doses (700,000 more than ordered last year).

For those age 65 and older, there are two different seasonal flu shots available. The standard-dose quadrivalent vaccine protects against four strains of flu virus, whereas the high-dose vaccine protects against three strains of flu virus, but in higher concentration. The province has ordered 1.3 million high-dose vaccine doses for Ontario seniors, intended for those with pre-existing health conditions, and those vulnerable individuals in long-term care homes, hospitals and retirement homes. The high-dose invokes a stronger immune response.

Children six months to four years old can get their flu shot from a doctor, nurse practitioner, or local public health unit, but those under five years old cannot get a flu shot at a pharmacy. Flu shots take about two weeks to reach full effect.

According to the Ontario Ministry of Health, last year’s viral strains resulted in just over 5,700 flu-related hospitalizations in Ontario, and 280 deaths.

Kyle Boggio, pharmacist/owner at Boggio’s Pharmacy on Highway 20, said that the government has planned a controlled release of vaccine to pharmacies between now and October 19. Additional supplies should be released thereafter.

“We are still very early in the flu season,” said Boggio. “Last year, the program didn’t start until the last week of October, so we’re several weeks ahead of where we were in 2019.”

Boggio’s has both the quadrivalent and high dose vaccines, but the latter is currently in very limited supply. He said that most people will opt for the quadrivalent.

Because of the necessary COVID screening measures, Boggio’s is providing flu shots only by appointment for now, although walk-in service could be an option in the future. Forms can be accessed from the home page of their website (boggios.com), and brought in for a pre-scheduled shot.

At Shoppers Drug Mart, located in the Fonthill Shopping Centre, pharmacist Nasrin Habashy said that both the quadrivalent and high-dose flu vaccines are in stock, and appointments are required.

Glen Sisak, pharmacist/owner at PharmaChoice, in the Fonthill Marketplace/Food Basics plaza, said he also has both vaccines in stock, with appointments necessary. He administered 600 flu shots last year, and expects to exceed that number if he has a sufficient supply of vaccine.

“The government has told existing pharmacies that they will receive 50 percent of their vaccine volume from last year before October 19, but many have not received that amount yet,” said Sisak.

“New pharmacies were told that they will receive only 50 flu shot doses before October 26.”

Bruce McAlpine, owner of one of those new pharmacies, PharmaSave, in south Fonthill, said that the government is distributing vaccines between October 5 and 26.

“That’s the first wave of stuff,” said McAlpine. “I already received my allocation at my Smithville store, but have not received anything at Pelham Hills yet. The second wave of distribution starts October 26.”

He described it as a “fluid situation,” since vaccine wholesalers have to get product from the manufacturers, and the “supply chain is a little bit tight right now.” Appointments are required at present, but McAlpine expects walk-ins to be accepted in the future.

Remember that simply getting a flu shot does not make a person impervious to illness. COVID-19 public health measures, which include wearing a face covering, frequent hand washing, and maintaining physical distance from those outside their household or social circle, all still apply.