Pharmacists have concerns about training, stock as Quebec's flu shot campaign approaches

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By Dale Crockett

MONTREAL — The Quebec government's flu vaccine program may only begin Nov. 1, but this year, increased demand for the vaccine has led to concerns that everyone who wants a flu shot can get one.

The COVID-19 pandemic has increased demand for the flu vaccine to help keep people healthy and out of clinics, ERs and doctors’ offices. That rise in demand has led to several issues as people begin to book appointments to get their influenza shot: they include concerns over a shortage of doses, delivery delays, difficulty getting an appointment and training for pharmacists.

Last year, the government tabled Bill 31, allowing pharmacists to give vaccines and increasing access by offering more vaccine sites and time slots.

Many pharmacists aren’t trained to give the flu shot, though, said Marc-Andre Couturier, a pharmacist and owner of Pharmacie Westmount. 

“The government changed the regulations to allow pharmacists... to administer the flu vaccine, but with COVID, all the training was delayed. So most pharmacists, I’d say 90 per cent, aren’t able to vaccinate… so most pharmacists are getting nurses to do it, but there’s a shortage of nurses so we’re all kind of scrambling, ” said Couturier.

Also, Couturier said the government isn't giving them enough support to get the job done. He adds it's overwhelming, and pharmacies are not equipped to vaccinate hundreds of people.

Couturier said that he had to make arrangements for additional space to accommodate the number of people who will be booking appointments 10 minutes apart and adhere to COVID-19 safety protocols.

"We are a small pharmacy; we had to reserve a room on the second floor, which is bigger because you have to have enough space... it's more of an undertaking. I find the pharmacies are taking on the brunt of it, and a lot of doctors are refusing to give the flu shot as well... because they don't have the manpower to effectively do it safely, to have the staff, the disinfectant, so a lot of doctors are foregoing flu shots,” he said. “I even have a doctor that sent me his whole patient list."

Couturier has ordered 500 doses of the vaccine, but he has not yet received them.

Brenda Lucas, a head technician at Proximed pharmacy on Decarie Blvd., said they are still waiting for delivery of their flu vaccines as well. 

“We are hoping to get them sometime this month… I believe we will be getting 200 [doses],” said Lucas.

They have already booked appointments for all 200 doses, and now there’s a growing waiting list.

“We are taking [appointments] but only if someone cancels or we are able to get more vaccine,” but so far, she said, there hasn’t been any word from the government on whether additional doses will be made available.

“It would have been nice if the government could have offered more [doses] because it seems there are quite a few pharmacies that have run out,” Lucas added.

In preparation to meet demand, last month Quebec announced it had ordered 35 per cent more doses of flu vaccine compared to last year.

On Tuesday, Health Minister Christina Dube said, “The objective was to be able to have all the material between Oct. 15 and November. That was the arrangement that we had with the pharmacies.”

“We intend to do delivery by steps,” Dube said. “It will be there, but you see, there's no point in supplying the pharmacy for the entire needs for the next three months when we could ship it two weeks at a time,” he said.

That will be good news for pharmacist Shaheen Bajgiran. Bajgiran owns a Pharmaprix on Ste-Catherine St. West. 

“We are taking appointments. The thing is, as soon as we open up any availability… within hours it’s filling up," he said.

“We order 2,000 doses… it was extremely difficult to predict with COVID… we knew it was going to be a much larger demand. It’s just a frenzy right now. We must have gotten 50 calls in the last few hours from people trying to make appointments," he said.

Bajgiran said the high number of doses is not typical of most pharmacies, but they’re in a high-traffic area.

“Because we’re downtown and we have a large volume, and we also deal with Concordia University, and we deal with some other clinics that are in the area,” Bajgiran said, adding that they expect to administer a maximum of about 50 flu shots a day and said they have enough for about five or six weeks.

“Yes, we do think we are going to need more doses,” he said.

And if the vaccines don’t arrive in time for Nov. 1? 

“I hope they do, otherwise that’s going to be a lot of phone calls to make, but in theory we should have them,” said Bajgiran.

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