Health

The Flu Shot Is *Essential* This Year—But Doctors Worry It Might Be Hard To Get

In a pandemic, getting the flu shot is more important than ever. But Ontario paediatricians say a wide-scale vaccination plan is needed immediately.

A grimacing, masked child gets a flu shot

(Photo: iStock/Irina Velichkina)

Feel ambivalent about the flu shot? Know this: If ever there was a year for both you and your kids to get the shot, this is it.

As always, the flu can be more serious than people think, sometimes leading to an ER visit, hospitalization or worse. “In Canada, over 1,000 children are hospitalized each year, and influenza kills hundreds of children every year in North America,” says Toronto paediatrician Dina Kulik.

But this year, as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, getting the flu would be worse than ever. Its symptoms are similar to COVID’s, meaning you or your kids would likely require COVID testing or self-isolation. There’s also a chance that you get both the flu and COVID-19 at the same time, and that could make symptoms much worse. And of course, we all need to do all we can to avoid over-burdening hospitals during a second wave of coronavirus.

In a normal year, about a third of people get the flu shot. But paediatricians in Ontario are warning that there’s a real possibility that this year—a year when the shot is unarguably more important than ever, and experts are hoping more people than ever will get it—not everyone who wants it will be able to get it. “[The pandemic] will complicate the logistics of getting our communities adequately immunized against flu,” says Kulik. The obstacle, she says, is that physicians and public health might not be able to vaccine people safely, given physical distancing and other measures that are in place to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Typically in Ontario, kids over the age of five can get the flu shot at a pharmacy or the doctor’s office, while kids four and under need to get it at their doctor’s office. But with COVID-19 restrictions in place, including distancing and sanitizing between patients, doctor’s offices don’t have the capacity to vaccinate large numbers of kids. “I surely won’t bring in thousands of kids to get it,” says Kulik.

In a Change.org petition launched September 19, the members of the paediatrics section of the Ontario Medical Association (OMA), representing more than 1,400 physicians, called for an immediate start to a campaign to vaccinate as many people against the flu as possible. In the petition, the doctors note that it takes two weeks to build antibodies that would protect you from illness after getting the shot. The petition calls on the premier to institute “a province-wide strategy to immunize those aged 6 months to 4 years of age who normally get their flu vaccine from their doctor.”

On Tuesday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced what it called the largest flu immunization campaign in the province’s history, saying getting the flu shot is an important pillar of the government’s fall COVID-19 plan. The provincial government is purchasing 700,000 more vaccines than it did last year. They said some will be available next week, with priority given to long-term care homes, hospitals and retirement homes. The vaccine will be available to the public in early October.

But Kulik says the announcement doesn’t address the challenges she faces as a paediatrician. “They said they want me to give the shots, but not how to do that safely,” she explains.

The OMA says there’s a solution. It’s calling for large-scale, community wide clinics that could administer the vaccine quickly, and say these could potentially be part of COVID testing centres. “Planning this right will also prepare us for a future COVID-19 mass immunization strategy as it relates to children,” says the petition.

It’s still unclear what this year’s flu season will look like, but given the rise in cases of COVID-19 both in Ontario and nationwide, we need to use all the tools in our arsenal to fight back against a second wave. One area of hope: This flu season might be less severe than previous years, because the measures that are limiting the spread of COVID-19 are likely to do the same for influenza. But Kulik says we can’t let our guard down: “COVID-19 remains a growing and unpredictable threat,” she says. “Not only do we want to prevent our children from getting sick with the flu, we also must prevent them from getting COVID or exposing others to COVID.”

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