A St. Albert pharmacist is expecting a higher uptake of the flu vaccine this year as the fall influenza season looms amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
People usually ask when the flu vaccine will become available – but not this often, this early in the year, said Ashley Davidson, the owner of the Shoppers Drug Mart pharmacy in Mission Hill Plaza. Flu season generally runs between November and April.
“People are asking all day, every day. We probably get asked at least 50 times a day,” Davidson said.
With expectations more Albertans will want to get the flu shot this year, the province has ordered 1.96 million doses of the influenza vaccine, an increase of 360,000 doses from last year.
For the first time, Alberta will be offering a high-dose influenza vaccine called Fluzone High-Dose for seniors in long-term care facilities. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine indicated the high-dose vaccine was 24 per cent more effective in preventing flu in adults 65 years and older relative to a standard-dose vaccine.
Health practitioners will be offering vaccines to vulnerable groups, including people in long-term care and supportive living, as well as people who are homeless, by Oct. 13 at the latest, according to the province.
All Albertans will be able to get the flu shot on Oct. 19 through public health clinics, doctor’s offices and community pharmacies.
Increased interest in the flu vaccine could stem from people wanting to reduce their risk of being vulnerable to both influenza and COVID-19 this season, Davidson said. It is possible to test positive for flu and COVID-19 at the same time, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
“We don’t have a COVID-19 vaccine, so getting their flu shots and also making sure their pneumonia shots are updated is really important to make sure they aren’t vulnerable during this season," she said.
While they're still in the planning stages, Davidson said Shoppers Drug Mart will still allow people to walk in to get vaccinated, but high-risk patients could be booked at certain times when there aren’t as many people in the store.
If you can wait a few days to get the vaccine, or if you can come in during quieter hours in the morning or evening, that will help with overcrowding as well, she said.
“We don't want to delay any shots, but we want to make sure that we're not overcrowding right off the bat.”
People also won’t be able to get the flu shot if they’re feeling unwell or if they have any symptoms consistent with COVID-19. Davidson said people should call the pharmacy first if they have any questions to ask if it's the right time to come in for the shot.
Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Alberta, said the province's plan to secure more doses of the flu vaccine and focus on vulnerable populations first is a reasonable one.
Each winter, Saxinger said hospitals see more patients in the intensive care unit due to the flu.
"The possibility that we could have even a 'normal' flu year and then layer COVID-19 on top of it is really an alarming thing," she said. "That would really potentially be a big stress on resources."
Getting the flu shot offers some protection against the virus at a time when there's no vaccine for COVID-19, which is important considering people can test positive for both.
"If you can reduce your risk of getting a fever or cough illness, this fall is the time to do that," she said.
Influenza vaccines aren't perfect, but they can reduce the number of infections in the community, Saxinger said.
Recent studies by the CDC suggest flu vaccination usually reduces the risk of influenza by 40 to 60 per cent among the overall populations when the vaccine viruses are like the ones spreading in the community.
There is also indication that getting the flu shot regularly can help the immune system develop different responses to influenza, like adding to a deck of cards, she added.
"Influenza is never really a walk in the park. But if you have a much less severe illness, I think that's still a benefit to vaccination, even if it doesn't fully protect."
Many people may feel unwell after getting the flu shot, leading them to question if the vaccine is making them sick. The short answer is no, Saxinger said.
Flu vaccines are made with dead viruses or synthesized components of the virus, so the live virus itself isn't involved in the manufacturing process, she said. Getting flu-like symptoms after getting the vaccine may actually be a good sign in some cases.
"Part of why you feel crummy with viruses is your body's immune response. A sore arm and feeling kind of tired or achy after a vaccine is actually kind of a good sign – it means that your immune system cares and is reacting to what it's supposed to be reacting to."
Last year, 1.4 million doses of the influenza vaccine were administered in Alberta, with just over 473,000 recorded in the Edmonton Zone.