Some experts are concerned about a coming influenza and COVID-19 collision

Quebec's public health authorities are preparing now to avoid a potential catastrophe later when flu season hits particularly if there is no COVID-19 vaccine available.

Quebec’s Health Ministry has ordered 400 thousand more influenza vaccines for this fall’s public vaccination program than it did last year to try and increase vaccination rates among people at risk of complications and hospitalizations, according to a ministry spokesperson.

A total of two million doses will be available for those who meet the Quebec Immunization Committee’s criteria (see below for complete list).

That's still a far cry from the universal coverage some had hoped for- especially during a pandemic.

Montreal infectious diseases specialist Dr. Matthew Oughton says offering a free vaccine to all Quebecers who want one would could help prevent the worst in Quebec if influenza season collides with COVID-19 outbreaks.

“If we can do anything that we can to reduce influenza disease that helps put us in a better position to deal with a subsequent second wave of COVID-19 that may come around the same time and we don’t want to get swamped by two waves.”

All provinces and territories offer a universal influenza vaccine with the exception of British Columbia, New Brunswick and Quebec.

Healthy people who catch influenza are not at increased risk of serious illness requiring hospitalization. However, the chief of infectious diseases at the Jewish General Hospital points out that every time we have a major outbreak of influenza in Quebec, the emergency rooms become overcrowded.

“So, imagine if we have the regular influenza season and on top of it we have a wave of Covid-19. It’s going to be a nightmare,” says Dr. Karl Weiss.

“The flu vaccine is not a great vaccine and won’t protect you one hundred percent,” Weiss adds, “but if you have everybody with the flu vaccine then you will lower the impact of the flu and you probably have a better handle on Covid-19.

An added benefit of offering the flu vaccine to everyone according to Dr. Oughton, who also works at the Jewish General, is that it would “maximize the accessibility of that very important and cost effective means of preventing vaccine preventable diseases…rather than having to work your way through the list of all indications and exceptions.”

For the last few years flu vaccines are also available and administered at many pharmacies across the province, at a cost of between $20 and $40 per visit, depending on the store.

Last year interested Quebec pharmacies purchased 200,000 doses of flu vaccine to sell to customers ineligible for the public plan from the Quebec Association of Pharmacy Distributors, according to its spokesperson, Hughes Mousseau,

Mousseau doesn’t know yet if pharmacies ordered more vaccines for the upcoming flu season than last year because the orders were still coming in, but he says if any want to up their stock afterwards he may not be able to fulfill the order, with such a limited supply.

The distributors, just like the provinces, have to order the vaccine from the manufacturers a year in advance because producing the vaccine takes months.

“We did factor in an increase because we saw there was a 10 per cent to 40 per cent increased demand for the vaccine in Australia and New Zealand,” Mousseau explained.

The flu season in Australia is underway right now and is being closely monitored to get a sense of what's to come in North America. 

On a positive note, Dr. Gaston De Serre from Quebec's National Public Health Institute told CTV, the “current surveillance data show influenza and influenza-like illness indicators are all lower than usual. The speculation is that COVID-19 related distancing measures and mask wearing may be helping prevent influenza as well as the coronavirus.

De Serre said that’s a good incentive for Quebecers to stick with public health practices here, throughout fall and winter.

The following are covered for a flu vaccine in Quebec in 2020-2021:

  • children aged 6 months - 17 months with certain chronic illnesses
  • adults with certain chronic illnesses (including pregnant women at any stage of their pregnancy)
  • pregnant women in their 2nd and 3rd trimester
  • seniors aged 75 years and older
  • those who live with a baby under 6 months of age, or with a person who has an increased risk of hospitalization or death, or who are caregivers
  • health care workers

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