Ontario family doctors warn early supply drying up as they see surge in demand for flu shot

In a typical flu season, Dr. Alisa Naiman starts offering the vaccine to her patients in late October.

This time around, with fears swirling over a “twindemic” featuring both influenza and COVID-19, the Toronto family physician started fielding calls from concerned patients as early as September.

“We’ve never had so much demand,” she said.

But while Naiman’s North York clinic has 7,000 patients, she’s only received 500 shots so far, including 150 high-dose shots for seniors that have already run out.

Other Ontario health-care providers, from family physicians to hospital workers, are also documenting the surge in demand and raising concerns that limited supplies of the flu vaccine are rapidly drying up — despite provincial assurance more rounds are on the way.

“We’re still pretending that we’re doing something that we’re not,” said Dr. Nili Kaplan-Myrth, a family physician in Ottawa.

Kaplan-Myrth has 1,400 patients at her clinic but has only received 140 regular shots of the flu vaccine and 15 high-dose versions. That’s not nearly enough, she said, to cover her more than 180 patients over the age of 65.

“Who do I give the high dose to, and who do I turn away?” she said.

Pharmacists are also noting their first rounds of the flu vaccine are running out quickly, as CBC Toronto reported earlier this week, with lineups also spotted at some pharmacy locations in Toronto in recent days.

21% increase in demand 

The growing concern comes as the province is investing $70 million to purchase more than five million flu vaccine doses, which marks 700,000 more than the approximate usage last year. 

Ontario will also purchase additional doses if needed, according to the Ministry of Health.

“In late September, the first shipments of flu vaccines started being delivered to public health units, long-term care homes and hospitals to prioritize vulnerable populations,” the ministry said in a statement. 

“Broader community distribution of the flu shot, including to primary-care providers and pharmacies, is currently being rolled out and will continue in the coming weeks.”

Dr. Alisa Naiman gives a flu shot outside her North York, Ont., clinic to one of her roughly 7,000 patients. (Lauren Pelley/CBC)

The ongoing supply will be crucial given the high demand, which also surged in the 2019-20 flu season, according to new data from the COVID-19 Ontario Prescription Drug Utilization Tool just launched on Thursday.

The online dashboard tool — developed by scientists at the Ontario Drug Policy Research Network (ODPRN)  — monitors prescription drug usage trends across the province based on pharmacy dispensing.

The data shows a 21 per cent jump in demand for flu shots in the 2019-20 season, which overlapped with the start of the coronavirus pandemic, as compared to the year before.

“We feel it’s probably predicting what we’ll see in the second wave — the demand in pharmacies and clinics,” said Mina Tadrous, a scientist at Women’s College Hospital and an investigator with ODPRN.

Better ‘distribution’ strategy needed

Alongside demand from the public, Toronto emergency physician David Carr said there are also challenges to accessing the available supply for front-line health-care workers.

That’s because front-line staff in hospitals can’t get vaccinated through the usual methods for quickly delivering the shots in hospitals — for example, staff gathering around “flu carts” to get the injections — because that violates the physical distancing rule in place to stop the spread of COVID-19, he said.

That’s leaving vulnerable front-line staff to try to book appointments with their family doctors or pharmacies along with the general public, which is proving tough for health-care workers facing long hours at work and lengthy waits alongside everyone else who wants a shot.

“Typically, I would brag that I’m the first to get the flu shot,” Carr said. “I still haven’t had it and neither have my colleagues.”

Even so, health-care providers CBC News spoke to agree it’s good news the public is lining up in droves to get their shots, which could prevent the twindemic that Carr and others fear could stretch hospitals beyond their capacity.

But Naiman also said the frustrations felt by health-care teams and their patients over the staggered rollout and early limited supply of this year’s flu vaccine needs to be a lesson for the future after a COVID-19 vaccine is finally available.

“The government has to figure out how to do the distribution better,” she said.

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