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Doctors getting limited flu shots in 'ridiculously inefficient' system

The majority of vaccines are being funnelled to pharmacies and clinics under the province-wide rollout, while family doctors only get enough for those with mobility issues.
People line up for flu shots outside the Fort Royal Pharmacy on Oak Bay Avenue on Sunday, Oct. 16, 2022. SUBMITTED

Some family doctors are ­calling the province’s decision to give them only a limited number of flu doses, targeting those who can’t access vaccination clinics, as both absurd and inefficient.

The majority of vaccines are being funnelled to pharmacies and clinics under the B.C.-wide rollout, with booking through the province’s GetVaccinated system used for COVID-19 shots.

Salt Spring doctor Clare Rustad, who has experience with a clinic vaccinating as many as 1,500 patients in a weekend, had planned with six colleagues to immunize about 450 patients against the flu in a day — until she and many other family doctors were told by the health authority this week that “under no circumstance would they provide us with flu shots for this purpose.”

On social media Wednesday, Rustad criticized what she called the “layers of [expensive] bureaucracy higher up that came up with this ridiculously inefficient system of delivery.”

A Saanich doctor who said his patients are asking him for a flu shot called the province’s immunization plan “really stupid.”

The Times Colonist obtained Island Health’s instructions to physicians, in which doctors are told to only order influenza vaccine for patients who would have difficulty accessing vaccination clinics — for example, those with mobility issues.

“Due to the very limited vaccine supply in the 2022-2023 season, physicians are only to offer influenza to those who require home visits,” says the memo from public health nursing for Island Health, adding: “Primary Care Provider Influenza vaccine ordering should be the ‘exception’ and not the ‘norm’ this season.”

The rationale is that flu shots will be more accessible through health authority clinics providing both COVID-19 and influenza vaccines, and whole community clinics through October and November.

“This is why family doctors are burning out,” wrote Rustad. “We literally came up with a flu shot clinic plan and had buy in from every single member of our clinic. … My patients are desperate for flu shots. I am desperate to not see influenza this winter.”

Rustad said patients have been asking about flu shots since August. The average age in her community is 55 and people are “very keen to not get the flu,” she said. Yet now patients are needlessly waiting for invitations from the provincial ­GetVaccinated system, she said. “Why create any barriers to immunization? Just immunize people as quickly as possible.”

Comox Valley family physician Dr. Nancy McFadden said a 92-year-old patient was trying to book a flu vaccine. The patient’s child reported calling the province’s 1-800 number for three days before getting through.

The 92-year-old patient was given the option to go to Campbell River, a 45 to 60 minute drive, or Cumberland, a 20 to 30 minute drive. At this point, McFadden called a nearby pharmacy that advertised walk-in flu shots but that pharmacist said all their vaccine was spoken for by people who booked through the GetVaccinated site.

“So, this 92 year old, is not able to attend their own pharmacy for their vaccine, instead their family is going to have to drive them 30 minutes for it, when they are within walking distance of their own pharmacy, and pharmacists they know,” said McFadden. “Very frustrating indeed.”

Pharmacist Vikram Bawa said he’s holding a walk-in clinic Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at his Fort Royal Pharmacy in Oak Bay for those asking for their flu shots, many of whom are seniors. “No one is doing walk-in clinics for the flu shot,” said Bawa.

While people are being instructed to wait for invitations to get the shot, many who aren’t tech savvy or haven’t received their invitations are concerned, he said. “The system the government is doing is pretty confusing.”

The rollout has been plagued by technical problems, with many people trying to call the GetVaccinated line (1-833-838-2323) unable to get through. “People have been trying for hours on the phone to get through,” Bawa said. Even if people get an invitation to book a shot, when they go online, they’re often being told there is nothing available in their vicinity, he said.

In response to questions from the Times Colonist, the Health Ministry issued a ­statement saying that sending the initial allocation of i­nfluenza vaccine to pharmacies and health authority clinics “supports the urgent need to provide both [COVID-19 and influenza] vaccines to as many members of the public as possible.”

The ministry said it plans to send more influenza vaccines to physicians toward the end of October when more supply becomes available, noting that the fall flu campaign has begun about two weeks earlier than previous years, and to date, about 140,000 flu shots have been administered.

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