Ontario says flu shot campaign successful even as pharmacies run out of doses

·4 min read

TORONTO — A shortage of flu shots in Ontario is a sign that more people than ever are getting them, Premier Doug Ford said Monday, hours after a major pharmacy chain temporarily paused its vaccination program because of supply issues.

Rexall said it was making efforts to secure more flu vaccine doses "promptly" and promised to update its customers via email and an online posting when flu shots were again available.

Ford said the significant uptake of flu vaccines showed the campaign was a success. He also appeared to blame Rexall for the supply shortages. 

"Let me flip this around, isn't this great news that we've seen an increase of flu shots of 500 per cent? People are listening," said Ford after being asked why there was a shortage. "As for my friends at Rexall, you knew the allocations that you had, so don't overbook people."

A spokesman for Rexall, however, pointed out that the vaccine supply is determined and allocated by the province's Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care. 

Despite Ford's public call out, spokesman Andrew Forgione said Rexall was looking forward to continuing to work with the Ontario government.

"Rexall developed a thorough process to ensure the health and safety of our customers and employees when receiving their flu shots, including booking an appointment," said Forgione.

Justin Bates, the CEO of the Ontario Pharmacists Association, said his membership had been told that more flu shots would be delivered by the province within the week although he wasn't sure exactly when or how many would be coming.

Bates also said that he knows having an appointment cancelled can be frustrating but ultimately it's positive news that so many people are getting vaccinated.

"This is a good problem to have because it's demonstrating that the public is aware of the value and importance of getting a flu shot this season in order to avoid overwhelming the health-care system," said Bates.

Health Minster Christine Elliott said that before the pandemic even began the province was planning a massive flu shot campaign and in preparation for that ordered 5.1 million doses — 700,000 more than 2019. After the COVID-19 pandemic began, Ontario ordered an additional 350,000 with help from the federal government.

A spokesperson for the ministry said that over 4.7 million doses of the flu vaccine have been distributed in Ontario, a number confirmed by Bates.

NDP health critic France Gelinas asked Elliott about the shortages  — pointing to specific examples in her northern Ontario riding in and around Sudbury — during question period in the provincial legislature on Monday morning.

In response, Elliott said that over a million flu shots have been administered compared to approximately 150,000 at the same time last year. Like Ford, Elliott said that the shortage was actually a mark of success.

"We started this flu season wanting to have the largest flu campaign in Ontario's history and it's happening," said Elliott. "I'm very grateful to the people of Ontario who have gone out and gotten their flu shots."

The government has been encouraging residents to get their flu shot this year, saying that doing so would help preserve hospital capacity during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Bates confirmed that demand for flu shots at pharmacies had risen 500 per cent from 2019.

Elliott said negotiations were underway to purchase more vaccines as the 5.45 million flu shots ordered by the province were not nearly enough to vaccinate Ontario's population of 14.5 million people.

"We set aside another $28.5 million in case we needed to purchase more vaccines and that's what we're trying to do now," said Elliott, who added that she had spoken with federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu and global manufacturers about getting more flu shots.

Bates noted that the procurement and distribution process for the flu shots were a good trial run ahead of a potential COVID-19 vaccine.

"Of course, (a COVID-19 vaccine) has global magnitude with manufacturers and supply chains that aren't just in Ontario or Canada but around the world," said Bates.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 2, 2020.

John Chidley-Hill, The Canadian Press