Don’t forget about that other vaccine

OPINION: The COVID-19 vaccine may not be widely available, but there’s another way we can take a jab at the pandemic — the flu shot
By Matt Gurney - Published on Dec 22, 2020
Curbing the spread of influenza can spare hospital beds for COVID-19 patients. (Rachel Verbin/CP)

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Not long ago at TVO.org, I turned in a column that I thought would be moderately interesting to the public, but no more. And I've been hearing about it from readers ever since. It struck a nerve, so I’m pleased to report a happy update.

The first column was published on November 2, and it recounted my doomed effort to get a flu shot. The Ontario government had made getting flu shots a big part of its plan for the second wave. This had left a lot of people scratching their heads, but it actually made perfect sense. The flu and COVID-19 are different viruses, but this was an example of addition by subtraction: every serious influenza case avoided was a patient who was not in the health-care system during the second wave, filling a bed a COVID-19 patient needed. While we waited for COVID-19 vaccines, the flu vaccine was a perfectly good weapon to use in this fight.

But we didn't have enough weapons. Demand vastly outstripped supply. As I wrote, my wife and I booked two appointments, a day apart, at our local pharmacy. We planned to each take one kid, and we'd all get our jabs over 24 hours. But those appointments were cancelled by the pharmacy a few days before we were set to get our shots due to a lack of supply. And this was happening everywhere. Many people had similar stories. A blame game quickly developed, with the pharmacies telling angry customers that they weren't getting enough vaccine from the province, which handles the distribution, and Premier Doug Ford firing back at the pharmacies, chastising them for overbooking, as it were. The companies had been told how much vaccine they'd be getting, the premier said, so what were they doing booking more appointments than they could service?

Most of the column I wrote last month was actually an effort to explain how the vaccination system works in Ontario and to understand why supply was so short. The answer, and I'm obviously simplifying here, is that the procurement cycle for a vaccine is almost a year long, so key decisions about this fall's vaccination program were made last winter, before the pandemic hit North America. It takes a long time to develop each year's vaccine, and then mass produce and distribute it globally (and you can't make sudden dramatic changes to the vaccine or the size of the production run mid-stream). Each year's influenza strikes first in the Southern Hemisphere, which gives us in the northern half of the globe some lead time to produce a vaccine. But it's not instant. And by the time COVID-19 hit North America, most of the key decisions had been made already. Any lessons learned, and any stronger demand among the public for flu shots, isn't going to be something that we can apply or do much about until next year's flu season. And we'll have to make those decisions in the next month or two to be ready for next fall.

That's the big picture. But bringing the macro right back down to the micro, I ended my column last month with a tongue-in-cheek appeal to the readers, saying, "If anyone knows where I can get four flu shots, please let me know." No one ever did. But I was able to find them anyway.

My wife was first. The private school she teaches at was able to arrange for all the staff to be vaccinated at work by the school nurse. That was obviously important, since I worried about her exposure to the students. If there was anyone I wanted to get vaccinated — if we'd only had one dose — it should have gone to her. A few weeks after that, our kids' pediatrician emailed us (not specifically, it was a blast to all patients) saying that they'd gotten a shipment of flu vaccine and to request an appointment if you wanted your kids to get a shot. We did but didn't make the cut. The appointments went too fast. But! We did go onto a waiting list and were notified that shots had become available about a week later. (I honestly don't know if they got more supply or if there were some no-shows among the group to sign up first.) My kids were duly vaccinated at their doctor's office.

So then there was one. Me.

Again, this is exactly how I'd have wanted it, and not just out of some gallant "women and children into the lifeboats" impulse. My kids were attending school in-person all fall. My wife was in her classroom. I'm basically isolated at home, where I've been working comfortably since this all began. My only real contact with the outside world is through them. So I should have been last on the list. I contented myself with that. But then, just this past weekend, my wife told me she saw a sign at a local pharmacy — not our usual, but in the neighbourhood — saying they had a supply of flu vaccine. I booked an appointment online and got my vaccine the next morning, via some weird little nasal spray that made me want to sneeze. (I resisted the impulse.) There were a bunch of questions I had to answer, as this vaccine differs a bit from the one that I'd otherwise have had injected into my arm, but it's apparently just as effective. So with two snorts, it was done. This is a textbook example of better late than never, but I'm just glad I got it.

And I'm not the only one who has. I asked the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care for an update and was told that as of Friday of last week, 5,929,945 flu vaccine doses had been distributed, an increase of 1.2 million from the year before. This included 142,000 doses that were transferred to Ontario from the federal stockpile, something I had said in my November column might be done. The ministry also says it continues to work with the private sector to see if even more vaccine can be secured for Ontarians.

So, there you go. Call your local pharmacy, or check online, if you haven't had your shot already. You just might get lucky. And bring your health card! I forgot to bring mine and was damn lucky I had the number saved on my phone. Don't make that mistake. Bring your card and get your jab, if you can.

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