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Frustration grows as more flu shot appointments get cancelled

Last Updated Nov 2, 2020 at 2:23 pm EDT

As public health officials and politicians are urging Ontarians to get their flu shot this year, many people are finding it a futile effort with appointments at pharmacies getting cancelled due to a lack of supply.

Flu shots this year are largely being done by appointment to avoid crowds and to comply with the province’s COVID-19 regulations, but even those who have booked ahead are finding themselves at a loss.

Breakfast Television’s Melanie Ng booked her appointment for a flu shot at a local pharmacy two weeks ago and was given a time for this upcoming Sunday. On Monday, she received an email telling her the appointment was being cancelled due to lack of supply.

Ontario’s Minister of Health Christine Elliott said the province is in talks with the federal government to get more vaccine shipments.

“(The federal government) have a reserve but we are trying to purchase whatever they have in the reserve as well as working with some global manufacturers,” she explained during a press conference Monday afternoon.

“Some very large quantities could be available but of course it’s the shipment to Canada and passing the regulatory approval is that have to have to take place,”

Justin Bates, Chief Executive Officer of the Ontario Pharmacists Association, believes the shortage has been caused by a massive increase in demand.

“Because of all the reports out there about people not being able to get the vaccine, I would say that what we are seeing at the pharmacy level across the province is a 500% increase from this time last year,” he explained. “It’s unprecedented demand.”

Bates also feels people have a better awareness of the threat of having a flu season combined with the continued battle against COVID-19, and the stress that would put on the healthcare system. He noted that this is also the earliest they have ever launched the flu shot campaign in Ontario, and people are trying to get in early.

“The government launched it officially on October 5 with distribution of the vaccine to primary care physicians, as well as others like pharmacies, so we’re all trying to cope with that demand and do our best to manage patients and work collaboratively with public health to make the program successful,” he explained.

Acknowledging the frustration people must be feeling over the situation, Bates encouraged them to remain calm and said some pharmacies are moving to a wait list system to avoid the need to cancel appointments.

“Unfortunately because there was an expectation and more supply was coming in the weeks and days that have preceded us in the last week, that’s meant that many pharmacists have had to call and cancel appointments and put people on the waiting list until they have more vaccine on hand,” he explained.

“We’re encouraging people to call ahead, because it can be frustrating to bounce from store to store even within primary care physician offices that are running clinics.”

Bates said the province had said another shipment is coming this month but added that pharmacies don’t yet know just how many supplies are coming, or when, making it difficult to determine how many appointments can be made.

“You don’t know if you’re going to have an order of 10 doses per day or 100 — so there’s some uncertainty there, which is why we’re in a bit of a holding pattern until we know exactly the supply that’s coming.”

Despite his claims, Elliott said pharmacies were aware of how much stock they would be receiving.

“The shots are still coming in, however the pharmacies knew from the beginning how many shots in total they would be allocated. And the appointments were booked in excess of the allocation they were to receive.”

Traditionally the onus of offering flu shot vaccinations have been on the shoulders of pharmacies and doctors offices. The shots are the responsibility of the province and then are distributed out by companies such as McKesson Canada.

Company spokesperson Andrew Forgione confirmed to CityNews that the shortage pharmacies are seeing is caused by government allocation.

“Unfortunately, the government’s allocation of flu vaccines to pharmacies is insufficient to service this increase in demand and pharmacies are having to turn away patients looking to be vaccinated due to limited vaccine supply,” he said in a statement.

“McKesson Canada will continue working closely with our pharmacy partners as we navigate this situation and are actively in discussions with Ontario’s Ministry of Health and the federal government to support a solution and path forward.”

In reaction to the shortage, a major pharmacy chain has temporarily paused its flu shot program in Ontario.

A spokesman from Rexall says that the company is making “all efforts” to secure more doses promptly. There has been no word on when the company will resume the flu shot program.

When asked Monday afternoon about Rexall pausing its flu shot program, Premier Doug Ford accused the pharmacy chain of overbooking appointments.

“As for Rexall, my friends in Rexall, you knew the allocations that you had so don’t overbook people. It’s as simple as that,” said Ford. “You knew exactly how many flu shots you had.”

Watch: Ford accuses Rexall of overbooking flu shot appointments

Elliott said during question period that over a million flu shots have been administered this year compared to approximately 150,000 at the same time last year.

The government has been encouraging residents to get their flu shot this year, saying that doing so would help preserve hospital capacity during the COVID-19 pandemic.

With files from The Canadian Press