Health officials preparing for flu resurgence as COVID-19 restrictions relaxed

Ottawa Public Health starts its flu vaccine rollout this week, but will be opening fewer clinics than last year as it prepares to begin vaccinating children under the age of 12 for COVID-19.

OPH limiting flu clinics to certain groups, general public can get vaccine at pharmacy, family doctor

People line up to get an annual flu shot at a pharmacy in Ottawa in the fall of 2020. Ottawa Public Health says they'll be relying more on pharmacies this year to administer influenza vaccines. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

With more relaxed COVID-19 restrictions, health officials are expecting to see the resurgence of another illness this year— the flu — but instead of being able to head to a community clinic, most people will have to visit a pharmacy or their doctor's office.

Last year, Ottawa Public Health ran six community clinics with appointments open for the general public, but the health authority is changing course this year, only opening a handful of clinics for people facing specific barriers, including young children and their families, those who don't have a provincial health care card or family doctor or are newcomers to Canada.

The change is, in part, because Ottawa Public Health will be running the flu vaccine clinics in conjunction with its COVID-19 vaccinations and an expectation that the vaccine will be approved soon for some children under the age of 12, said Marie-Claude Turcotte.

"We're expecting the five to 11 [age range] to become eligible so we need to make sure we have enough capacity in our clinics to meet that demand," she said.

Marie-Claude Turcotte, who manages Ottawa Public Health's vaccine program, said they've cut back on community clinics administering the flu vaccine this year in anticipation of kids aged five to 11 becoming eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Turcotte said the change is also because last year COVID-19 health measures meant family doctors weren't seeing patients in person.

"Last year many physicians were not seeing clients face-to-face, but this year is a different reality," she said.

Pharmacists are also ready to take on the extra clients this year, said Justin Bates, CEO of the Ontario Pharmacists Association, adding that more and more people have turned to pharmacies to get their flu shots in recent years.

"We're ready to step up and continue to provide solutions," he told CBC.

Bates said Ontario pharmacies have already begun to administer the influenza vaccine to vulnerable people and will open their doors to the general public on Monday.

More flu cases expected

Earlier this month, the Ontario government announced it had purchased more than 7.6 million doses of the flu vaccine doses — an increase of 1.4 million from 2020.

Last year's influenza campaign was all in an effort to avoid a "twindemic."

This year's is to avoid something similar. With larger gatherings and more relaxed COVID-19 health measures, Ottawa's deputy medical officer of health Dr. Brent Moloughney said the flu is expected to spread more easily. 

"Essentially we didn't have any influenza last year," he said. "There just wasn't the opportunity for flu to spread."

Dr. Sharon Johnston, a family physician and clinical researcher at the University of Ottawa, said the increased risk of influenza's spread, along with the continued risk of COVID-19, adds to the need for people to get their flu vaccine.

"It's certainly as important as ever and probably more so," she said.


While more than 84 per cent of eligible Ontarians have had two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, some people are now eligible for a booster.

Canada's National Advisory Committee on Immunization has said administering the the COVID-19 vaccine, alongside other vaccines, is safe.

That guidance, Johnston said, should encourage people to get both the influenza and COVID-19 vaccine at the same time, if they can.

Bates said pharmacies are ready to provide both vaccines to those who need them.

"We're prepared to make sure that, as people come in, they can have essentially a one-stop shop," he said.

With files from Kimberley Molina and Matthew Kupfer