Flu season hasn’t hit Colorado yet, but some pharmacies already are running out of shots, as people who wouldn’t normally get vaccinated start to roll up their sleeves.
Carly Callan, a pharmacist at Capitol Heights Pharmacy in Denver, said they’ve already gone through their supply of flu vaccine, which would have lasted well into November in a normal year. They bought more doses than usual when they placed their order back in April, but didn’t get the full amount they wanted, she said.
In Colorado, about two-thirds of children and less than half of adults got the shot in the 2018-2019 season, which was a fairly typical year for the flu, according to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation. Children younger than 5 and adults older than 65, who are at a higher risk of complications, were more likely to be vaccinated.
There’s no hard data on who is getting vaccinated this season, but Callan said they’re seeing more young and middle-aged people than usual.
“So many people are wanting to get it that don’t usually get the flu shot,” she said. “We went through (our supply) in a matter of three weeks, maybe four weeks.”
Public health officials have urged everyone older than 6 months to get the flu shot. They encourage that every year, because thousands of people die of flu complications even in normal times, but it’s even more important during the COVID-19 pandemic, said Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, during a virtual event held by the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.
It’s not clear what might happen to a person who gets both viruses at the same time, he said, and hospitals could be overwhelmed if there’s another wave of the new coronavirus and a bad flu season at the same time.
Small pharmacies like Capitol Heights aren’t the only ones that tried to stock up in anticipation of strong demand. Pharmacy chains Walgreens and Rite Aid have ordered 30% to 50% more doses of the flu shot than in a typical year, according to STAT News, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ordered 9.3 million more doses than it would in a typical year.
The state ordered almost 60 times as many flu shots to distribute to providers serving uninsured and underinsured adults as it would in a typical year, with about 298,600 doses available, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. They also ordered 35,300 extra doses to give free to children who are uninsured, underinsured, eligible for Medicaid or members of American Indian tribes.
No one tracks how many clinics and pharmacies still have shots available, but a search of locations in the Denver area found wide variation. An online search Monday found 10 CVS locations in Denver had appointments available to get the shot, but six out of 10 Walgreens locations reported flu shots were temporarily unavailable.
Matt Blanchette, a spokesman for CVS, said their stores nationwide ordered a combined 18 million doses, which was twice the amount they bought last year. They don’t anticipate any widespread shortages, though if a store runs out, there could be a delay while more doses are shipped in, he said.
Kaiser Permanente spokesman Nick Roper said their clinics also aren’t anticipating an overall shortage, though some shipments of a high-dose vaccine geared toward senior citizens have been delayed. Seniors can receive the lower-dose version that younger people do, though the higher dose triggers a stronger immune reaction.
“It is important to note that all flu vaccines are effective in protecting against influenza and its complications, and when the high-dose version is in short supply, we will offer other versions,” Roper said.
The flu typically starts spreading in the Southern Hemisphere during winter, which is summer in North America. The virus then makes its way north and typically spreads from fall to spring. This year, there was little flu activity in the southern half of the globe, perhaps because of measures to contain COVID-19.
“The good news is wearing a mask, keeping your distance and washing your hands helps with (preventing) influenza,” Benjamin said.
As of Wednesday, the CDC showed “minimal” flu activity across the country, with the exception of Puerto Rico and Iowa, which are seeing some spread. Some people don’t produce an immune reaction until two weeks after they get the shot, though, so it’s most effective if administered before the flu is spreading widely.
Callan said Capitol Heights is on waiting lists for more doses of the flu vaccine, but may not get them until mid-October or even December.
“I’m a little bit nervous it’s going to be a little crazy, like the toilet paper, but with flu shots,” she said.
To find providers offering flu shots, including those with free doses available, visit fluvaxcolorado.org.
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