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Slow flu shot uptake concerns health experts ahead of holidays

A vial of the influenza vaccine at a pharmacy in Moncton, N.B. Dr. Gerald Evans, an infectious disease specialist at Queen's University, has suspected misinformation could extend and lead to hesitancy about flu shots. (Alexandre Silberman/CBC - image credit)
A vial of the influenza vaccine at a pharmacy in Moncton, N.B. Dr. Gerald Evans, an infectious disease specialist at Queen's University, has suspected misinformation could extend and lead to hesitancy about flu shots. (Alexandre Silberman/CBC - image credit)

As the holidays near, Ottawa Public Health is reminding people it is prime time to receive a flu shot.

In a series of tweets, the local health unit wrote that the shot requires two weeks to provide full protection, and Ottawa is still seeing high levels of respiratory viruses circulating in the community — with influenza at a very high level in the city's wastewater.

Those holiday dinners and gatherings loom, but some health experts say they've witnessed a hesitancy around getting the shot — with some concerned anti-vaccine sentiments or pandemic burnout may be factors.

 

Dr. Gerald Evans, an infectious disease specialist at Queen's University, says there has been "evidence" of misinformation keeping people away from vaccine clinics.

"The rates are generally at the very low end of what we typically see in the general population," said Evans.

There is also a lower uptake in flu shots among health-care workers, he said, which is less than ideal since they're helping to control the recent surge in patients flooding hospitals.

Numbers ticking upwards 

While fewer people appear to be getting their shots, those numbers have at least begun trending up, Evans said.

"What happens typically once seasonal flu hits, a lot of people start to get, unfortunately, some personal experience through friends and family who are infected, and that'll often drive them to get vaccinated."

Evans said discussions with colleagues around Ontario have illuminated to him these trends extend beyond Kingston, where he is based.

Felix Desroches/CBC
Felix Desroches/CBC

With family doctors, clinics and pharmacies all responsible for administering vaccines, he said a more streamlined system could help increase how many people get jabbed.

Ottawa Public Health told CBC it's seen good uptake of the influenza vaccine at its clinics, but pharmacies and health-care practitioners administer the majority of flu vaccines.

Just outside the nation's capital, the medical officer of health for the Eastern Ontario Health Unit said, despite a recent flu shot campaign, they're not seeing a huge uptick in requests.

While they've administered 22,000 doses through pharmacies, Dr. Paul Roumeliotis said they haven't had many children showing up for appointments.

"I believe that people are fed up with COVID," he said. "Don't forget, we're at the tail end of a COVID pandemic, which we're still under. We've had multiple vaccines for COVID."

Children urged to get flu shot

Roumeliotis said, since COVID-19 hasn't been especially dangerous for children, he thinks parents believe they also don't need a shot for the flu. He also thinks people are conflating the severity of the flu and the common cold.

"Adults seem to think the flu — old people get it only and kids don't suffer and it's not very dangerous," he continued.

"But, indeed, I think they're wrong."

Roumeliotis said most of the recently unprecedented levels of hospital admissions include, not only those 65 and older, but children four years old and younger.

Still, Evans doesn't want to alarm people about flu season. While it may seem like one of the worst ones in recent memory — with COVID-19 and RSV in the mix — he said perspectives may be somewhat skewed.

"People do look at those absolute numbers and go, 'Wow, that's huge compared to previous years,' but that's because we do a lot more testing," he said.

Evans said an earlier start to the flu season also meant people had less time to get their shot.