Winnipeg pharmacy owners concerned they still haven’t received flu shot orders amid sky-high demand

Some Winnipeg pharmacy owners say they’re worried and need better communication from the province, as they wait to receive the flu vaccines they’ve ordered while the government is urging residents to get inoculated.

“We don’t know anything. We tried to communicate, and we didn’t get any real answers,” said Hassan Bhuiyan, who owns Panacea Pharmacy on Dakota Street.

Bhuiyan placed an order for vaccines in early September. Now, he says he doesn’t know what to tell the dozens of patients who have called hoping to book a flu shot.

“It’s not very difficult to disclose a distribution pattern or time with some kind of window,” he said. “That’s something we would like to know, and then we can answer our patients.”

Dr. Mohamed Ali, a pharmacist and owner of Pembina Drugs pharmacy, said he’s already had to cancel two scheduled flu shot clinics at his pharmacy, which he’d planned to hold on Tuesday and Thursday this week, because the vaccines he ordered hadn’t arrived.

Now, he’s not sure he’ll get them in time for new date on Oct. 20, even though the province has posted it on its site listing where flu shots are available.

“It’s very concerning,” he said.

Ali placed his pharmacy’s order for vaccines back in August, and was asked by Manitoba Health to set a date for availability by Sept. 15. Instead of daily walk-in shots, he’s offering vaccinations on set days, so he and pharmacy staff can stay on top of COVID-19 sanitization and distancing requirements.

He’s been getting roughly 10 phone calls a day from patients seeking shots, he said, as demand skyrockets due to COVID-19.

“The peak of the flu season is anywhere between December and February, so the earlier you take the vaccine, the better. That’s the whole idea behind trying to immunize as soon as you have the vaccine available,” he said. “In Manitoba, we started late.”

Province working to deliver shots quickly

Manitoba officially launched its flu shot campaign on Thursday. Premier Brian Pallister and Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin urged the public to get their shots as soon as possible, as the province works to avoid a health-care system swamped under the combined pressure of COVID-19 and seasonal flu.

The province has already shipped roughly 150,000 doses of the flu shot, Roussin said, and is working to make deliveries quickly. Shipments are made through a streamlined distribution process, he said, on a schedule that rotates each year.

“We have many, many shipping points that we get to, so in no year have we been able to ship out to everyone at once,” he said. “Some are starting to receive it now and others will receive it over the next many weeks.”

But Bhuiyan and Ali said the province needs to make that schedule available to pharmacies, so they can be confident in making their bookings. Ali said this year, the province should have accelerated deliveries or used models from other Canadian jurisdictions that let wholesalers handle delivery.

“My question is, the most critical state is when you have the vaccine in your warehouse. Now, why don’t you distribute it immediately? Why do you have to have waves?” Ali said.

Based on previous years’ experience, Bhuiyan said it’s not unusual for pharmacies not to know when seasonal flu vaccine shipments will arrive, but COVID-19 has raised the stakes for everyone.

“Demand is very different than any other year, so concern is different this year,” Bhuiyan said. “Because of patients’ concern, we are concerned.”

‘If we can serve our patients, I’m happy’

Ali said he’s concerned the province isn’t offering enough clinics to meet the high demand, and is relying too heavily on pharmacists to deliver shots.

“If we look at the Manitoba Health website, the number of people announcing [clinics], it’s very little compared to the high demand,” he said. 

There are currently 470 licensed community pharmacies operating in Manitoba and more than 1,000 pharmacists who can give flu shots, said Pharmacists Manitoba in an email. As of Thursday, 296 pharmacies — almost two-thirds of all that are eligible — had placed vaccine orders for the 2020-2021 flu season.

“Pharmacists remain the most accessible way for Manitobans to get their flu shot in Manitoba; however, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the process will look a little bit different this year,” said Pharmacist Manitoba president Pawandeep Sidhu in a statement.

Patients should contact their pharmacy in advance and self-screen for COVID-19 symptoms before going for their shots, Sidhu said.

Manitoba increased its vaccine order by 20 per cent this year, a provincial spokesperson said, including doubling its order for high-dose vaccines to 21,500 doses in total. On Thursday, Roussin said the province is prepared to vaccinate about 40 per cent of its population. Last year, just over 26 per cent of Manitobans got the shot.

Bhuiyan said his goal is simply to make the flu shot accessible to patients and keep people safe.

“We have to fulfil the demand of our patients. That’s the concern,” he said. “We are here to serve our patients — that’s it. If we can serve our patients, I’m happy.”

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