COVID-19 to spark high demands for flu vaccine

Health-care workers expect more vaccinations due to common flu and COVID-19 symptoms

Flu shot sign
As the flu vaccine will be delivered in early October, public health units are already gearing up for high patient traffic. Margarita Maltceva/Toronto Observer

A significant increase in flu shots is being predicted this season as symptoms similar to COVID-19 are causing concerns.

“We’ve already had an increased public demand for flu shots in the past three weeks,” said John Zervas, a pharmacist at Pape Shoppers Drug Mart. “It seems a lot of people are concerned, especially with the similarities between [influenza and coronavirus].”

In 2018 and 2019, Canadian health-care workers inoculated more than 3.2 million flu shots, which was four per cent higher than in previous years. This number will grow dramatically in 2020 as people seek ways to prevent symptoms that COVID-19 and influenza have in common: fever, cough, fatigue, and headache.

John Papastergiou, the owner of four Shoppers Drug Mart pharmacies at Pape and Danforth, said that Australia, where flu season runs from April to October, has reported a record number of flu vaccinations. The COVID-19 crisis and the intensity of the previous flu season have sparked heightened concerns among Australians.

“We know that Australia, which has already had their flu season, needed to get more flu shots in the first three weeks than they did in the entire year prior,” he said.

“Given the COVID-19 pandemic and all these talks about vaccines, I think we’re gonna have a substantial increase in flu vaccination as well.”

Flu shots to ease burden on health care

Health-care providers urge the public to get vaccinated each season to stop the spread of influenza, which kills hundreds of Canadians annually.

With the pandemic putting tremendous pressure on hospitals, flu vaccination has become even more crucial as it removes the necessity to deal with two viruses at the same time.

“Public health representatives and doctors say it’s imperative [to take flu shots] every year,” said Dr. Hilary de Veber, a pediatrician at the Michael Garron Hospital medical centre. “But it’s even more important this year because we need to reduce the number of flu cases to ensure sufficient capacity in case of a second wave.”

“We have to do everything we can to limit the burden on the health care system,” she said.

This year, flu shots will be delivered on October 5, and health professionals encourage the public to take them as soon as possible since it takes up to two weeks for the vaccine to build immunity.

New ways to deliver flu shots

This vaccination season will differ from previous years due to safety rules imposed by COVID-19.

“Obviously, with the pandemic, we have to make considerations for social distancing,” Papastergiou said.

He said that Shoppers Drug Mart, where an adequate distance between individuals is a must, will limit the number of patients who can visit the store at the same time.

Frequent sanitizing and protective equipment will also play a crucial role in this year’s vaccination.

Papastergiou also said his pharmacies will open an hour earlier to manage the traffic of flu patients.

Another innovation that medical centres will introduce is paperless registration that would help reduce physical interactions.

“Patients will be able to consent to the flu shot with their cell phones and then just transmit it via QR code,” Papastergiou said.

But some medical workers highlight the shortage of protective equipment and social distancing issues that can preclude the safe administration of flu vaccination.

“In our offices, we can’t provide the flu shots in the same way we did before,” Dr. de Veber said.

“I don’t feel the planning is put in place as we can’t maintain the recommendations from the Ontario Medical Association, which implies limited interaction between patients.”

Entrance of a medical centre.
Medical workers say that social distancing is the main concern that prevents the delivery of flu vaccination in a safe environment.

According to the safety standards set in March, doctors can interact with only a few patients per day.  Visitors are also advised to stay outdoors to avoid crowding in the waiting room.

Such measures will affect the capacity of medical centres to manage high demands for the flu vaccine.

“We can’t give the flu shots in the volumes that are required through our offices in a safe manner,” Dr. de Veber said.

“That’s why we need public health and the city to come up with a plan that is safe, and probably is going to involve outdoor tents so that people can space out and get flu shots.”

Call for change

Ahead of the massive flu vaccinations, the Ontario Medical Association has filed a petition to address growing concerns over the flu vaccination crisis.

OMA, which represents over 1,400 pediatricians in Ontario, urges the Public Health to develop a plan that ensures safe delivery of flu shots, particularly for children and infants.

“Without a plan, we will fail to reach all children and infants who want and need the flu vaccine unless we build a better centralized, universal infrastructure, now,” the petition says.

The petition is aiming at 1,000 signatures to be forwarded to
the premier’s office.

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Posted: Sep 20 2020 9:19 pm
Filed under: News