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Demand for the flu vaccine skyrockets, health care providers assure public there are enough doses

Some pharmacies are already reporting long waits for flu vaccine appointments as demand increases to avoid a "twindemic" of the flu and COVID-19. But health care providers say everyone will have access to the shot.

Ontario has ordered 700,000 more doses of the vaccine compared to last year

Ontario is preparing for surging demand of the flu shot and has ordered 700,000 more doses than 2019. (Stu Mills/CBC)

Demand for the flu vaccine has skyrocketed in Ontario, as public health officials have warned of a "twindemic" where the health care system would be stretched beyond capacity due to flu and COVID-19 patients in hospitals at the same time. 

Public health officials have urged residents to get their flu shot if they are able — so they can protect themselves, prevent the flu from spreading to more vulnerable people and to reduce the burden on the health care system. 

And while some are reporting line-ups to get the shot, and pharmacies are quickly going through their vaccine supply, officials told CBC News there will be more than enough to go around.

Surging COVID-19 cases within certain Ontario cities including Toronto and Ottawa mean it's crucial for the public to get the vaccine compared to other, non-pandemic years, said Justin Bates, CEO of the Ontario Pharmacists Association. 

"It will help avoid that stress and burden on the health care system by making sure the vaccination rate is high," he said. "It's never been more important than it is now to get vaccinated."

Close to $70 million is being invested to purchase flu vaccines to deliver "the largest  flu immunization campaign in Ontario's history," Ontario's Ministry of Health told CBC News in a statement. 

The province is ordering 5.1 million doses of the vaccination through a partnership with the federal government and other provinces and priorities, they said. This amounts to 700,000 more vaccines than last year along with 1.3 million high-dose vaccines for seniors and those with pre-existing health conditions. 

Ontario is also investing another $26.5 million in additional flu vaccines if they end up required. 

Bates says Ontarians can be assured that there's no shortage of the flu vaccine and currently the program is under a rolling start to prioritize those who are more vulnerable first. The flu vaccine program doesn't officially begin until Oct. 19. he said. 

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When booking a flu shot, call ahead to secure an appointment and understand some patience may be required, said Bates, adding that it's a good sign to see Canadians seek out the flu vaccine.

"The demand is really high this year so we just have to stagger it, book appointments and everyone will get their flu shots," he said. "This is very early on in the flu season so people just have to be patient and feel reassured that the system is there to support them."

Supplies of vaccines used up quickly: pharmacist

While Pharmacist Jas Singh Combow says he's not worried about running out of vaccines, he says the demand is unprecedented so far.

Within five days this week, Combow says the East Liberty Village Pharmacy he manages in Toronto ran out of their supply of flu shot vaccines. But their stock will be replenished next week, he said. 

"The demand has been higher than previous years, the message from public health is working," said Combow. "We do need to get as much vaccinations out there as possible."

Jas Singh Combow is a pharmacist and manager of two pharmacies in Oshawa and Toronto. He says he's seen increased demand for the flu shot this year. (Angelina King/CBC News)

Combow also runs the Harmony Valley Phramacy in Oshawa and saw a waitlist of patients wanting to get vaccinated grow well before the flu vaccine was available this fall. 

To manage the demand, his pharmacy is spacing out patients with 30 minute appointments to ensure social distancing and giving staff time to sanitize the area before the next patient, he said. 

His advice to residents is: don't panic about access to the vaccine. "We've been assured there's no shortage of vaccines," he said. 

Hours long wait for flu vaccine: Toronto resident

Despite assurances vaccine needs will be met, Toronto resident Beth Levy told CBC News she was dismayed at how she had to call multiple pharmacies to secure her spot to receive the vaccination.

Levy, who said she called pharmacies in the Avenue Road and Eglinton Ave. West area, found that one is not taking appointments and asking patients to wait for at least two hours inside for the vaccine. Another pharmacy told her the wait would be thirty minutes to an hour. 

"I can't believe that they think this rollout of this program, is good during a pandemic," she said. 

Eventually, Levy made an appointment at a Rexall pharmacy, but will have to wait until the first week of November for her appointment. 

She said waiting for the shot isn't ideal and she will continue to search for an earlier appointment, if possible.

"I really hope that this was a very small snapshot of one person's experience and I hope that people are easily able to get the shot," she said. 

Up to the public to prioritize vaccination

The Ontario government is prepared to vaccinate around 50 to 60 per cent of the population, compared to the benchmark of around 25 to 30 per cent last year, said Samantha Hill, president of the Ontario Medical Association. 

The government is making these vaccines are available — and it's now up to the public to seek out the doses, she said. 

"If we get a surge of flu that takes up emergency room beds, there isn't going to be room for heart attacks, strokes and everyone else who needs to be taken care of on a routine basis," she said

"If [the public] steps up one more time and gets their flu shot...I think we'll be okay," she said. 

With files from Angelina King

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