Pharmacies brace for increased demand for flu shots amid pandemic
WAs flu season quickly approaches and the Covid-19 pandemic rages on, hospitals and pharmacies across the country are stocking far more flu shots than normal, anticipating increased demand.
Drugstore chain Rite Aid purchased 40% more flu shots than in previous years to meet an expected surge in demand. Walgreens has also increased its stock of flu shots this year, forecasting a 30-50% increase in the number of customers who will want to get their flu shot or other vaccinations, the company’s chief medical officer told STAT. And Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told lawmakers in a hearing this week that the agency has ordered 9.3 million additional influenza vaccines for adults this year. Redfield said widespread influenza vaccine coverage “could help our country avoid a very difficult fall.”
“The flu is a critical time in the healthcare industry,” said Christopher Savarese, Rite Aid’s director of operations. “This year is one of the most important – otherwise the most important – the flu season in our generation.
The flu and Covid-19 both cause respiratory symptoms, and a severe case of either can get someone to the hospital. Given how Covid-19 has already depleted the resources of many hospitals, health experts say achieving widespread flu vaccination will be crucial to reduce the further strain. But they also face significant challenges, from environmental disasters and widespread misinformation about vaccines to fears of in-person visits to healthcare facilities.
Even in normal times, the flu season can put a strain on the health care system. Between 9 and 45 million people are infected with influenza each year, and between 140,000 and 810,000 are hospitalized, according to CDC estimates. In 2018, the United States recorded its highest number of flu deaths in recent history, with 80,000 deaths.
Flu vaccines are designed to provide protection against three to four strains of the virus that scientists believe may be circulating in the fall and winter to come, meaning the effectiveness of this vaccine may vary. From one year to another. And while it doesn’t prevent infection, a flu shot can protect against serious illness, experts note. This year in particular, they say, getting the flu shot is an urgent precaution.
“This will not only help you protect yourself from the flu,” said Glen Nowak, director of the Center for Health and Risk Communication at the University of Georgia, “but the more we can reduce influenza transmission in the country, the less we are stressed. health care systems will be as Covid and influenza viruses start to circulate together. “
In part, experts are concerned about the overlap in symptoms between the flu and Covid-19, including fever, muscle aches and cough, as well as the potential impact of being infected with both an HIV virus. flu and the virus that causes Covid. -19 at the same time. There are a handful of efforts to deploy tests that screen for both Covid-19 and influenza, but being able to quickly distinguish the two will have significant implications for isolation and contact tracing efforts.
“I am optimistic that people are taking their responsibility to not only protect themselves, but also their friends, family and colleagues very seriously this season,” said Kevin Ban, chief medical officer of Walgreens.
The CDC recommends that the public get vaccinated in early fall, and ideally by the end of October to provide protection for most of the flu season. The CDC says getting the vaccine too early – in July or August, for example – is associated with less protection later in the flu season.
Yet some pharmacies and suppliers have said patients come in for the flu shot as soon as they are available.
“We have seen patients arriving since the end of August for their vaccinations,” said John Schirripa, regional medical director for Mount Sinai Doctors-Westchester in New York City.
To mitigate potential risks around Covid-19 – or the fears of patients around them – its network of hospitals has set aside designated sites and days to operate flu clinics, where there is little overlap with other hospital patients and the doctors who treat them.
Other primary care facilities take similar precautions by offering drive-thru options or mobile clinics. The Big Sur Health Center in California, for example, is working with local businesses to encourage employees to participate in a driving flu shot this year instead of an on-site health fair held every October. . “We’re adapting our methods so that we can get as many people vaccinated as possible,” said Sharen Carey, CEO of the Big Sur Health Center.
In Washington and Yamhill counties, Oregon, staff at the Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center have consistently used on-site flu drives on Saturdays in October and November to boost immunization, with a focus on farming communities. dominated by Hispanics. This year, however, they are using mobile clinics to provide testing for Covid-19 and flu, as well as flu shots. Executives said the mobile clinics are expected to operate nearly five days a week and immunize up to 20,000 people.
“We’re doing this in part to reduce risk and keep this interface with people outside of our physical building,” said Sarah Deines, director of quality at the Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center.
Still, health officials know there are a number of barriers that can prevent some of the public from getting the flu shot, including crises linked to climate change.
“People are more concerned about their homes burning than they are about coming in and getting the flu shot,” said Armand Dorian, chief medical officer at Verdugo Hills Hospital at the University of California from South. “Getting the flu shot can be a luxury for them.”
Dorian and other health care providers have said they are also concerned about misinformation about vaccines, which Dorian says appears to have become more politicized.
“I don’t know why or how this has become such a polarizing topic,” Dorian said. “It fits the policy and I’m very scared about it.”
Experts have said that existing measures to curb the spread of Covid-19 – including social distancing, masks and increased handwashing – can also help reduce influenza transmission. But vaccinations will be a key part of that effort, they said.
“If we all get our flu shots, it will make a huge difference for us to get back into society,” Dorian said, “especially this flu season.”