Montreal facing unprecedented demand for flu shot

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By Adam Kovac and Cindy Sherwin, CTV News Montreal 

Many people in the Montreal area who are trying to schedule a flu shot at a CLSC or pharmacy are finding themselves out of luck.

“It was hell,” said 75 year-old Laval resident Lise Plourde of the four straight days she spent on the phone last week, trying in vain to book flu shot appointments for herself and her 85 year old husband.

Many others, including some who are considered high-risk for the flu, are in the same boat. Ron Bolus says he’s “a bit vulnerable” now, a few years after he had surgery to treat lung cancer.

“I’ve been okay but I like to get my shots.”

But watching his wife tire herself out on the phone while they try to follow public health advice has “been frustrating,” says Bolus.

Online booking sites for the vaccine at several pharmacy chains and for Montreal's regional health authorities showed no openings for the foreseeable future on Monday, the first day when appointments at CLSCs could be made. 

On the Clic Santé online vaccination booking portal, numerous CLSCs have a pop-up message stating that all appointments have been reserved. Nov. 1 marks the official start of the Quebec government's flu vaccination program.

“Starting November 1, some health professionals (e.g., doctors, nurses, pharmacists, etc.) will be offering the flu vaccine,” the message reads.

“In the context of COVID-19, if you already have a medical appointment scheduled after November 1, you may be able to get the flu shot at that time! Contact your health professional to find out if he or she can vaccinate you.”

A spokesperson for the Montreal Centre South regional health authority told CTV News that an update on the situation would be given on Tuesday morning. Speaking to media on Monday, Health Minister Christian Dube promised an announcement by the end of the week.

"“Wednesday or Thursday, we'll have a briefing point for the plan on Nov. 1," he said. "I think there's a big change people need to understand. Before, when we had flu season, you could bring people into a large arena, but we can't do that anymore. The good news is we have an arrangement with pharmacists to be part of the program but we need to explain to people how they can make an appointment either with a pharmacist or CLSC.”

Plourde said her efforts to book an appointment have only led to frustration.

“Once I waited 53 minutes on the line,” to speak to someone at CLSC Ste- Rose she said, “just to be told the appointments were filled.”

The person on the phone suggested she call back when they had more doses – but couldn’t tell Plourde when that would be.

Plourde says at various times she was also given conflicting advice, to call earlier in the day, but also that calling earlier wouldn’t help because appointments are gone by 8 am. There were no waiting lists.

The other option was to book their appointments online via Clic sante, but that is not always as simple as it sounds.

“I have a hard time with the internet,” Plourde told CTV.

“I’ve heard there are definitely seniors having a hard time with the new system," said Vanessa Herrick of advocacy group Seniors Action Quebec. "I think there have been great efforts made to make things more accessible on line for seniors who are at home in isolation. However what is happening is the seniors who are less comfortable with the internet and booking things online are actually becoming more isolated and it’s important we reach them for the flu shot as well.”

The Quebec government upped its order of the flu shot from 1.6 million to two million in June, anticipating an increase in demand due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The doses are earmarked for high-risk people, such as the elderly, who are eligible to receive the shot for free.

And getting more than that number, even if Quebecers are clamouring for the shots, isn't likely at this point, said one expert on the system.

Hugues Mousseau, director-general of the Quebec Association of Pharmacy Distributors, said there's simply “a limited supply of vaccines” and everyone is seeking them. 

“There's more supply, but there's significantly higher demand as well. Flu vaccines purchases, the actual purchases that public health authorities do, are typically done about a year out,” he said.

“It's a long production cycle, so (making more doses) is not something that's done easily.”

Mousseau noted that while the supplies made available through public health outlets have increased this year, those available through the private system, namely at pharmacies, has decreased.

“Typically we're normally able to provide pharmacies with about 200,000 doses of private flu vaccines each year,” he said. “This year, it's 100,000. Obviously these appointments do go pretty quickly.”

Mousseau said his organization has been in contact with the federal government and regional health authorities in an effort to secure more of the public health flu vaccines for pharmacies, but no answer is expected before Nov. 9.

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