Lack of flu vaccine supply also frustrates pharmacists, says prof

Waterloo pharmacist Catherine Schill is among the Ontario pharmacists noticing far more interest in the vaccine, far earlier than in previous years. Although the province ordered more this year and controls what shops get, demand far outstrips availability.

Province ordered 1 million more than 2019, but deliveries can't keep up to demand

Pharmacist Catherine Schill says she's awaiting more shipments of the flu vaccine. (Submitted by Catherine Schill)

Waterloo pharmacist Catherine Schill says she's spending her days watching closely for two things: the result of the U.S. election, and her pharmacy's next shipment of flu vaccines.

"We're just kind of waiting to see which way it's going to go," said Schill, who is the owner of Schill's Remedy's RX in Waterloo.

"Is it going to be Biden? Is it going to be Trump? Similarly with the flu shots, we just kind of … wait for the driver to come to see what's in the box."

Schill is among the Ontario pharmacists who are dealing with far more interest in the vaccine, far earlier than in previous years. Meanwhile, vaccine shortages have been reported across the province.

According to Justin Bates, CEO of the Ontario Pharmacists Association, demand for flu shots at pharmacies has risen 500 per cent from 2019. 

Rexall says it has had to delay flu shot appointments because it has run out of doses at Ontario pharmacies. In the province, pharmacies access a flu shot supply determined by the Ministry of Health. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

The Rexall chain of pharmacies also announced this week it was temporarily pausing its flu vaccine program due to a "province-wide supply issue," according to a post on the company's website.

Schill said her pharmacy has gone through two shipments of the vaccine so far. They are currently out of stock and awaiting a third.

Each time a delivery arrives, she said, there's a sense of relief in the pharmacy.

"There is this kind of overwhelming feeling like, 'Oh great, I can call these people, because I'm really interested in making sure that they're vaccinated soon,'" she said.

'Inconsistent message'

University of Waterloo pharmacy professor Kelly Grindrod said this flu season has been a frustrating one so far, as pharmacists grapple with a lack of supply, along with the challenge of explaining to anxious patients why they can't get vaccinated when they want to.

"The problem is there is kind of an inconsistent message, which is to be sure you get your flu shot, but there isn't any," she said. 

"I think that's where pharmacists are getting really frustrated. They know they put in the orders and they tried to plan accordingly, but they're just not getting the supply that they ordered, and no one can tell them when they're going to get that supply."

Never more important to get a flu shot, Ford says

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In a statement to CBC News, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Health said the province ordered 5.4 million flu vaccines this year, over a million more doses than last year. 

The province continues to get regular shipments of its total order and is working with the federal government and exploring other options to acquire more doses, the statement said.

Many OK to wait, says pharmacist

For now, Schill said most people who are otherwise healthy will likely be fine waiting a few more weeks for a shot.

She also encouraged people in their sixties who are otherwise healthy to consider getting the regular flu shot, rather than the high-dose version.

"If you're jockeying to get the high dose and you've just turned 65, but you're otherwise very healthy, don't feel compelled to," she said.

"You probably would do quite fine with the regular dose vaccine." 

Grindrod said anyone waiting to get their flu shot should contact their pharmacy or healthcare provider to get on a waiting list, so they can be notified when more doses arrive.

Kelly Grindrod is a pharmacist and professor at the University of Waterloo School of Pharmacy (Peggy Lam/CBC)

In the meantime, she said people should also be cautious about becoming so focused on their flu shot they lose sight of the broader pandemic.

"We still need to focus our attention on COVID and distancing and the numbers and all that stuff, and I and I think we ought to be careful that we're not distracted from the important COVID things by this flu shot crisis," she said.


With files from CBC Ottawa and the Canadian Press