Pharmacies See Record Flu Shot Demand in First Season With Covid

While the world awaits a vaccine for Covid-19, Americans are rushing to pharmacies in record numbers for seasonal flu shots. Public health officials say that may help avoid a “twindemic.”

CVS Health Corp. has already surpassed the 9 million flu shots it gave during the entire previous season and expects to double that number by the end of this cycle, a spokesman said. Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. has administered 60% more doses in its U.S. stores than at this point last year, said Rina Shah, group vice president of pharmacy operations.

Manufacturers are producing record numbers of shots to meet the demand, and more have been distributed at this point in the season than last year, said Ram Koppaka of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We would be extremely happy if the level of demand we’re seeing now remains consistently high across the next several months because that would translate to much higher coverage than we’ve seen in recent years,” said Koppaka, the agency’s associate director for adult immunization.

The pandemic has brought new urgency to this year’s influenza season, which typically kicks off in October and peaks in the winter months. Influenza and the coronavirus are respiratory illnesses that look similar, and both can be deadly, creating the threat of overwhelming hospitals. The flu killed more than 22,000 in the U.S. last season, and the still-raging coronavirus has already taken more than 220,000 American lives.

Getting a flu shot, while imperfect, offers a two-fold benefit of protecting oneself and preserving precious medical resources, Koppaka said. Yet less than half of adults received one last year, according to the CDC.

Senior Demand

This year stands to look different.

More seniors are coming into Walgreens for flu shots than usual, Shah said. People 65 and older, who are at higher risk of developing complications if they contract Covid-19, are driving demand for high-dose flu shots, causing some delays.

With a possible Covid-19 vaccination campaign on the horizon, this year’s push offers pharmacies, doctors and public health officials a chance to refine their plans. The initial results are promising, though Koppaka said it’s still early and the initial rush could taper off.

In the age of social distancing, vaccinators have had to develop new ways to give flu shots. Walmart Inc. started hosting flu clinics twice a week in stores and created a system to schedule appointments online. Demand is double what it was at this time last year, the retail giant said.

“We’ve really tried to make people aware of the flu shot, make them convenient and make sure we have flu shots to offer,” said Walmart Chief Medical Officer Tom Van Gilder.

Seniors started streaming in to get vaccinated earlier in the season, Walgreens’s Shah said. Ensuring each location has enough shots requires a mix of science and art, she said.

Some Delays

Some independent pharmacies and providers have experienced delays. About 20 independent medical practices across the U.S. have reported difficulty receiving ordered flu vaccines, especially the high-dose shots, to Aledade Inc., which supports over 7,300 providers across 26 states.

One is Jason Lofton, a family medicine doctor in De Queen, Arkansas, a small community with many Latino residents and no local hospital. Lofton, who is also the county health officer, ordered 200 high-dose shots but received just 20, with no explanation, putting him in a bind, he said.

He’s been maintaining a waiting list of elderly patients, in case more doses arrive in the coming weeks. The high-dose shots are also scarce among other providers in town, although the local Walmart said it has plenty, he said.

In southern Oregon, Grants Pass Clinic had to scuttle its lineup of flu vaccine clinics last month after it ran out of the high-dose vaccine. A delivery it had been expecting was delayed by regional wildfires and hurricanes elsewhere in the U.S.

“The need is high, because the news keeps saying, ‘Hurry and get your flu vaccine, this is your greatest protection against Covid,’” Christi Siedlecki, the clinic’s chief executive officer, said at the time. “The reality is, everybody’s anxious to get it, but we don’t have it.” (The practice has since received the shipments and reopened its clinics.)

Ordering Ahead

Independent medical group Privia Health said it has also heard of those issues from a small number of practices, or fewer than 10.

Independent doctors report that in typical years they receive flu vaccines later than pharmacies. Some Americans, however, are seeking out the shots earlier than usual this season, acting on the public-health messaging they’ve been hearing for weeks, which may put independent providers at a disadvantage.

At the national level, manufacturing and distribution of vaccines is on target, Koppaka said. There could be issues in areas where demand is particularly high, though. Doctors and pharmacies order flu shots ahead of the season, and distributors dole them out over the span of a few months.

“In local areas where demand is high, an individual provider may have run out, but the expectation is that the next shipment is on its way and that vaccine will again become available to that local provider,” Koppaka said.

This flu season might also serve as a practice round for the upcoming Covid-19 vaccination campaign. The lessons learned, both good and bad, could help shape it.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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