Ontario ordered enough flu shots for a third of the population

While public health officials across the province urge more people than ever to get a flu shot this year, the Ontario government ordered only enough doses of the influenza vaccine to cover about 35 per cent of the population.

Public health officials urging more people to get influenza vaccine this year

The province has ordered 700,000 more flu doses than last year, for a total of 5.1 million doses, which is a record number for Ontario. (Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg/Getty)

While public health officials are urging more people to get a flu shot this year, the Ontario government ordered enough doses of the influenza vaccine to cover only about 35 per cent of the population.

The province has ordered 700,000 more flu doses than last year, for a total of 5.1 million doses, which is a record number for Ontario.

The provincial levels are on par with the national supply — the federal government ordered 13 million flu vaccine doses, enough for about 34 per cent of the country's population.  

As both politicians and health officials implore people to get the shot — Ottawa Public Health (OPH) officials are hoping to vaccinate 70 per cent of the population this year — it's unclear whether the supply can meet the overall demand.

Supply at odds with messaging

For weeks, health officials from every level of government have been urging Ontarians to get a flu shot, which is thought to be especially important during this COVID-19 pandemic.

This is short-sightedness and incompetence at both levels of government.-  Amir Attaran, Professor at University of Ottawa

Thousands of people are hospitalized and hundreds die due to influenza each year in Ontario and there are concerns that flu patients could overwhelm the health-care system during the pandemic. As well, because the symptoms of the flu and COVID-19 are similar, people with flu symptoms will likely need to be tested for coronavirus, putting further strain on COVID-19 testing and laboratory resources.

This is why officials have been pressing the flu shot — which provides protection against contracting influenza, or can lessen the severity of symptoms if you do get it — like never before.

"Please make sure you get yours. It's never been more important," Premier Doug Ford said last month.

A sign in a Shoppers Drug Mart in Ottawa advises it is temporarily out of flu shots. The CBC checked every Shoppers in Fredericton, Moncton and Saint John and found all were out of stock on Thursday. (Jen Beard/CBC)

Toronto Public Health "would like to see everyone who can receive the vaccine to be vaccinated" and OPH's Dr. Trevor Arnason pleaded this week: "If you don't normally get a flu vaccine, please get one this year." 

High-dose shots for fewer than half of seniors

"People are being told it's very important to get a flu vaccine, and that message is exactly correct," said Amir Attaran, a professor in both the the faculties of law and the school of epidemiology at the University of Ottawa.

"But our federal and provincial governments have yet again bungled it, and not really laid the plans to vaccinate as many people as will respond to that reasonable, excellent request to be vaccinated for flu.

"This is short-sightedness and incompetence at both levels of government."

Attaran told CBC he is concerned in particular about a shortage of the high-dose versions of the shot for seniors.

The province's order of 5.1 million flu shots includes 1.3 million of the high-dose variety, although there are about three million people over the age of 65 in Ontario.

Amir Attaran, professor at the University of Ottawa, says the federal and provincial governments' plan for the flu vaccine supply was short-sighted and incompetent. (CBC)

The province has said it will order more vaccines if they are needed, but Attaran wonders whether that will be possible as many countries in Europe and Asia are running low.

"Canada is going to have to go up against all those countries and try to get some more and good luck with that."

'Avoiding wastage': province

Provincial officials have said recently there is no shortage of the vaccine, as people have complained that their local pharmacies are running out of initial orders.

"It's important to remember that the province does not receive its vaccine order in one shipment," reads an emailed statement from the Ministry of Health.

"Distribution timelines may vary by public health unit and wholesale distributors. As avoiding vaccine wastage is very important due to the expected increase in demand this year, multiple shipments of the flu vaccine helps to ensure that doses are being used as efficiently and effectively as possible."

However, the fact that more shipments of the vaccine are on the way does not address the question of whether there will be enough overall. 

The ministry was not able to provide comment on why the province ordered enough vaccines for 35 per cent of the provincial population.


  • A previous version of this story said there were only enough high-dose flu vaccinations for 28 per cent of Ontarians over the age 65. There are enough for about half of seniors.
    Oct 23, 2020 3:59 PM ET

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