Saskatchewan’s flu shot campaign will likely be a sneak peek into how the province plans to roll out a COVID-19 vaccine.
The provincial health ministry said this year’s flu immunization campaign will have to consider limits on gathering sizes and clinic capacity that will also be a factor when and if a COVID-19 vaccine becomes widely available in the province.
In a prepared statement, ministry spokeswoman Colleen Book wrote ” … there will need to be additional precautions in place (physical distancing, mask use, capacity in clinics) that will need to be in place for the 2020-21 influenza vaccination program that will also need to be considered when COVID-19 immunizations are available.”
Health care providers always encourage people to get the annual flu shot, but this year they’re expecting a much higher rate of demand.
The province has ordered 569,000 doses of the flu vaccine, a 36.5 per cent increase from the previous year. The ministry said 13,000 of those doses are more powerful Fluzone shots for people aged 65 years and older in the province’s nursing homes.
The Public Health Agency of Canada said provinces and territories have collectively ordered 13.8 million doses of flu vaccine this year, an increase of more than 2 million.
Experts like University of Saskatchewan professor and epidemiologist Cordell Neudorf hope a larger number of people getting the flu shot will help the province in its fight against COVID-19 by reducing the usual pressure influenza puts on the health system.
Neudorf said it may also help prevent backlog at COVID-19 testing sites, since symptoms of the flu might be confused with those of COVID-19. However, this year’s flu campaign poses logistical challenges, he said.
“The normal way that we would administer the vaccine is with a mix of small clinics and mass immunization,” Neudorf said in a previous interview. Such large-scale events might not be possible this year.
“We don’t want to have thousands of people lined up close to each other like we would at Prairieland Park, when we had mass immunization clinics there.”
To that end, the province is considering novel approaches to mass immunization, including using existing drive-thru COVID-19 testing sites in Regina and Saskatoon to deliver the flu shot. Book said this idea is still being explored and would only happen during hours when the sites are not offering COVID-19 testing.
The Public Health Agency of Canada said it’s planning for concurrent outbreaks of influenza and COVID-19 and its seasonal flu campaign is putting a special emphasis on vaccination for people who are older or who have compromised immune systems.
Loblaws staff pharmacist Graham Houk said pharmacies expect this season to be busy. They’re taking extra precautions, like patient screenings, and also letting people fill out consent forms online to reduce the amount of paperwork and physical contact at the front desk.
He said younger people in particular should think about getting the shot this year so they don’t pass the flu to more vulnerable friends and family.
“What we want to stress is that the flu shot is not always just about you,” Houk said. “Even if you feel that you’re not at risk for the flu … get the flu shot for the friends and the family and the people that you love.”
Flu shots are available for free to anyone with a Saskatchewan health card, starting Oct. 19.