About 43,000 fewer New Brunswickers have gotten their flu shot, compared to the same time last year, despite warnings about a more severe season, following the lifting of COVID-19 measures.
A total of 66,488 influenza vaccines have been administered, as of Nov. 3, figures released by the Department of Health show.
That's down from roughly 110,090.
But the administration of influenza vaccines started about a week later this year, said department spokesperson Adam Bowie.
"And there have been some process changes around the data reporting for pharmacies and primary care providers that may be causing a slight lag in the reporting process," he said in an emailed statement.
Bowie did not provide the 2020 flu shot statistics.
More pharmacies requiring appointments
Asked how big a role the push toward requiring appointments might be playing in the dropping numbers, Bowie did not answer directly.
"A number" of pharmacies still offer walk-in clinics, he said.
"It's also perfectly safe to receive both your influenza and COVID-19 vaccines at the same time, so if you're able to schedule both appointments for the same day, that might make things more convenient for you."
A growing number of pharmacies have started asking people to book an appointment for the flu shot, either online or by phone.
They're busier than before, administering COVID-19 vaccines and providing additional services, Jake Reid, executive director of the New Brunswick Pharmacists' Association, has said. They also want to ensure they have the enough staff and inventory in place, Reid said during an interview.
Some waiting until they get COVID booster
In an updated statement, Reid said pharmacists are hearing anecdotally that some people are holding off on getting their flu shot until they're eligible for their next COVID booster so they can get both shots at the same time.
"We understand people may be experiencing a bit of vaccine fatigue, but we encourage everyone to book an appointment for a flu vaccine," he said.
"The flu vaccine provides you with protection while also helping reduce the number of seasonal influenza cases in our already crowded emergency rooms and clinics."
The free flu shot is recommended for all New Brunswickers aged six months and older, with a higher dose available for those 65 or older.
"Most" of the vaccines administered to date have been to people 65 and older, said Bowie. He did not provide a number.
Still early in season
Seasonal influenza can pose serious health risks to the elderly, the very young, and those with weakened immune systems or other chronic health conditions, said Bowie.
"While the Department of Health would like to see the number of vaccinated citizens increase, it is early in the season, and there's still time for many individuals to get the protective shot," he said.
Normally, the flu season really starts to "take off" in January, Dr. Yves Léger, acting chief medical officer of health, has said.
Asked whether the department intends to step up efforts to boost vaccination numbers, Bowie said the province will be "reminding citizens, through advertisements and social media posts, that [it has] a good supply of vaccines, and that appointments are available now and in the coming weeks and months," at pharmacies and through primary care providers, such as physicians, nurse practitioners and public health nurses.
During last year's flu shot campaign, Dr. Jennifer Russell, chief medical officer of health, urged New Brunswickers to do their part to help reduce the strain COVID-19 had put on the health-care system.
Keeping New Brunswickers healthy was "more important than ever," she had said. "By getting this year's flu shot, we are helping to reduce hospital visits from influenza-related illnesses and freeing up those resources for areas where they are needed most."
No adverse events reported
This year's influenza vaccine provides protection against four different strains — two influenza A viruses (H1N1 and H3N2), and two influenza B viruses.
There have been no adverse events reported to Public Health following influenza vaccines this season, as of Oct. 20, said Bowie.
"It's important to note that the influenza vaccine cannot give you 'the flu,' as it does not contain a live virus," he said.
Side effects can occur with any vaccine, however. The most common ones may include soreness, redness and swelling where the vaccine was administered. In some people, symptoms may include mild fever, headaches, and achy muscles starting six to 12 hours after their vaccination, and they may last one to two days.
Applying a cold compress to the injection site may reduce discomfort, said Bowie. People can also take over-the-counter medicines for fever and discomfort, as per the manufacturer's instructions. "It's best to ask your health-care provider what medicine may work best for you," he said.
11 more positive cases
Eleven more positive cases of the flu have been reported in New Brunswick, and three new influenza-associated hospitalizations, as of Oct. 15, the most recent influenza surveillance report.
No new influenza or influenza-like illness outbreaks have been reported in nursing homes, hospitals or schools, the report shows.
Seven cases of influenza A(H3) viruses and four cases of influenza A (unsubtyped) were reported between Oct. 2 and Oct. 15.
The influenza-like illness consultation rate was below the expected level for the first of the two weeks, at 0.0 per 1,000 patients visits, but slightly higher than expected for the second week, at 24.7 per 1,000 visits, the report says.
The "sporadic activity" of influenza and influenza-like illness has been mostly in the Saint John region, Zone 2, with 10 cases, while the Moncton region, Zone 1 saw one case, according to the report.
The latest cases raise the total for the 2022-23 season, which began Aug. 28, to 12. The previously reported case was influenza A (unsubtyped) in the Moncton region, Zone 1.
At the national level, influenza activity is increasing but remains at inter-seasonal levels, according to the report.
A total of 394 laboratory detections were reported during the two-week period, including 380 influenza A and 14 influenza B.
Among the cases with detailed age information, 45 per cent were in children and teenagers, the report says.