Some pharmacies may have to limit what they can offer to meet an increased demand for flu shots, third doses of the COVID-19 vaccine and COVID-19 testing, pharmacists say.
The fall is always a busy time for pharmacies, according to Jen Baker, a pharmacist and pharmacy owner, who is also the former chair of the board of directors of the Ontario Pharmacists Association.
This is the first fall with the COVID-19 vaccine, though, in addition to the annual flu shot, COVID-19 tests that were around last fall, and the typical increase in demand during the cold weather season due to illness.
"Phones need to be answered, medications need to be filled, prescriptions need to be reviewed, patients need to be counselled. They need to get their flu shots and their COVID shots in a timely manner, and there are many people who have upcoming travel who need timely COVID testing," she said.
"It's a lot of prioritization, triaging and juggling."
Baker said her pharmacy's phone lines lit up earlier this week when the province announced it would offer third doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to certain groups starting this weekend.
Ontario Pharmacists Association CEO Justin Bates said pharmacies have stepped up during the pandemic, including to administer COVID-19 vaccines, which will work parallel to flu vaccine programs.
"There's definitely a lot going on," he said. "I will say pharmacies have prepared for this."
Bates said regulated pharmacy technicians who administer COVID-19 vaccines, a system which he expects will be "imminently" expanded to include flu shots, has been a big help, and online booking systems have created a "well-oiled machine" for meeting vaccine needs.
Pre-travel testing an added, unpredictable demand
While pharmacists are busy with vaccinations, pre-travel testing for COVID-19 could be too much as some Ottawa testing centres pause that service due to the demand for symptomatic testing.
That demand increases as the United States opens its land border to Canadians.
Bates said the availability of appointments may change as worldwide testing criteria and needs evolve for travellers.
"We are always at the mercy of the public policies and health policies and various eligibility criteria," Bates said. "But we're very agile in terms of being able to accommodate people and implement those changes.
"I think people at this particular time need to be somewhat patient with all health-care providers because it is a busy time with being right in the middle of the flu season."
Baker said decisions about labour and resources are made on a pharmacy-to-pharmacy basis.
"We do our best to make sure that everybody is seen as quickly as possible, but it is a very busy time, and each pharmacy does need to prioritize based on the health needs of our patient population," she said.
"Sometimes something has to give, and that may be up to the pharmacy what they put on pause in that moment."
Baker said while her pharmacy uses an online booking system to streamline the appointment process, there are always walk-ins that can cause delays. She wants people to plan ahead as much as possible, and to try to have back-ups in place if their preferred pharmacy doesn't offer the services they need.
"Do some research in advance. Call ahead. See what wait times are like, and try and book an appointment," she said.