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A shot of confusion: Some get flu-only bookings; supply ‘disparity’ means a wait for COVID shots

Pharmacy association says pharmacies received more flu vaccines than COVID vaccines.
A flu vaccine is administered at London Drugs on Yates Street on Thursday. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

After months of advice to get COVID and flu shots together this fall, some people are ­getting invitations to book flu shots only.

In some cases, that’s because pharmacists received more flu shots than COVID ones — the Pharmacy Association of B.C sent a letter to members this week saying that if they run out of COVID shots, they can provide just the flu shot until more stock arrives.

“This disparity in supply has made appointment scheduling particularly ­challenging,” the association said.

For others, it’s likely because they’re still within the recommended six-month ­interval for COVID vaccines, having received a booster in the spring or summer, Health Minister Adrian Dix said Thursday from Charlottetown, P.E.I., where he was attending a meeting of provincial and territorial health ministers.

The B.C. Pharmacy Association wrote to members this week saying limited ­initial ­supply of the updated mRNA COVID-19 vaccine meant pharmacies received a ­“disproportionate ratio” of influenza to COVID vaccines.

The association blamed the lack of supply on delays in Health Canada’s approval of the updated COVID-19 shots.

Moderna’s new version of the monovalent mRNA vaccine, which has been adapted to the Omicron subvariant XBB.1.5, was approved and shipped first, followed by Pfizer-BioNTech’s version in late September.

In a statement, the Pharmacy Association said the COVID vaccine arrived later than hoped in all provinces, including B.C., but that the Pfizer brand arrived this week and shipments to pharmacies are beginning. (Moderna’s XBB1.5 has been in stores since prior to the vaccination campaign.)

The association advised members to employ various strategies to avoid ­overbooking COVID-19 vaccination ­appointments, including temporarily ­dropping COVID shots when it looks like those vaccines stocks are running low and providing flu-shot only appointments. “Once you get Pfizer vaccines, add back COVID-19 options,” it said.

The pharmacy association said the Pfizer vaccine is expected to be delivered to pharmacies Oct. 16-27.

Virginia Watson-Rouslin, who lives on the Saanich Peninsula, said when she tried to register online after receiving her invitation to book on Tuesday, the only option she was given was for a flu shot.

Watson-Rouslin’s husband, who is in his 80s, was also invited to book just an influenza vaccine. His last COVID booster was April 18, so she figures he was eight days too early for his COVID shot when the invitations were sent out. “It seems a confusing way to start off this new vaccine season,” she said. “If it’s just one shot, then that doubles all the work for ­registering, going to get a shot, etc.”

Green Party Leader Sonia Furstenau said her 65-year-old spouse also “got an invite for his flu shot but not for his COVID shot.”

“When we see the rates of COVID right now and we are hearing from the Ministry of Health that there are higher rates of illness, higher rates of hospitalization, higher rates of death, this is a time to really get the house in order so that people can get access to the tools they need to stay healthy,” said Furstenau.

Pharmacist Penny Lehoux, manager of pharmacy managed care for London Drugs based in Richmond, said the public needs to be patient. “We don’t have to worry about a shortage — there’s a lot of vaccine supply on the way.”

Lehoux advised people who only get an invitation for a flu shot to book it and ask for a COVID shot when they get to their appointments. The recommended interval between COVID shots is six months, but the minimum is three months in exceptional circumstances, such as upcoming travel or a pending surgical procedure or hospital visit, for example.

“If they show up at the pharmacy for their flu shot only, the pharmacist or the nurse could assess their eligibility for the COVID shot and if they have stock they can give them the COVID shot as well,” said Lehoux.

Dix rejected the idea that people are being offered the flu shot only because of a delay in Pfizer vaccines, saying plenty of the Moderna shots are available. On Tuesday alone, 29,788 people in the province were vaccinated against COVID, he said.

More than 1.1 million invitations have been sent out and hundreds of thousands of appointments have been booked, said Dix.

Green Party candidate Dr. Sanjiv Gandhi said there’s no point in an invitation system if it creates confusion, calling the vaccination uptake “awful.” “Yes, 90 per cent of the population got their first two doses, but only 60 per cent of the population even got a third dose, let alone other boosters.”

Booking invitations for vaccination are going out first to priority groups including people in long-term care, those 65 and older, people with chronic health conditions, Indigenous peoples, people who are pregnant, and health-care workers.

Anyone who wants to get their COVID and flu shots and can’t do so electronically can call 1-833-838-2323 to co-ordinate their vaccinations, said the Health Ministry.

Call records at the Get Vaccinated number showed an average wait of about 30 minutes on Wednesday.

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