The Quest For A Flu Shot In 2020

For at least 11 flu seasons now, as long as I’ve had asthma, I’ve had a flu shot. To protect myself and others, it just makes sense. Every year, public health officials, ads and announcements in stores, and social media campaigns urge us to get flu shots. With COVID-19 in the mix, that urging has become even more emphatic from public health officials—and social media ads. As far as I can tell, it’s working, because I’ve yet to be able to get my hands on a flu shot. Well, more accurately, I’ve yet to be able to find someone who has their hands on one to jab it into my arm!

Asthma and a flu shot in 2020: A not-so-simple task

In past years, I’ve got my annual flu shot in a myriad of places: a clinic at the university, a clinic at the mall near the university, a clinic at the casino, a staff clinic at a health center walking distance from my house when I was a respite care provider, from my family doctor. I even got a flu shot from a doctor-friend in an equipment room at Special Olympics practice when I coached his son and he did me a solid by bringing me the flu shot down to the gym (I mean, I’d seen him in the clinic for my knee problems so technically I’m among his patients!). I also had one last year from a pharmacist between rounds of federal election canvassing.

In retrospect, aside from 2009 (my first flu season with asthma) when the seasonal flu vaccine included a vaccination for H1N1 in that pandemic, I’ve never had any real difficulty accessing a flu shot.

Well, until now. Many family doctors, as well as my sports med guy, haven’t received their stocks yet. It appears the vaccines are being directed to community pharmacies. With reduced gathering sizes, clearly, mass flu shot clinics aren’t likely to be as much of a “thing” this year, aside from employer-arranged clinics.

My pharmacy ran out of the flu vaccine

I received my 2019 flu shot on October 16 which was my mom’s birthday. It’s now October 30th. I had a flu shot booked at a pharmacy for last night, but at 11:30 AM yesterday I received a text that they were out of the vaccine and I’d need to reschedule. They hoped to get more vaccines over the weekend and were prioritizing the canceled appointments. This is after visiting or calling multiple other pharmacies on multiple different occasions to find that they are out of flu shots. They were either completely booked—yet never be offered to book an appointment—or have not even received vaccines yet this year!

I am continuing to try, and I am happy more people are getting flu shots this year. However, it's frustrating that it is now 2 weeks later after I received my flu shot last year. Also, after 10 years of minimal problems, flu shots are again, nowhere to be had. On top of this, there are no high-risk clinics being held like they were during H1N1 (which, again, for obvious reasons!).

We know the flu shot is already a bit of a gamble, with educated guesswork going into developing vaccines for the correct strains. But I’d rather have a "maybe" than nothing at all.

Speaking with my asthma specialist about flu shots

When I saw my asthma specialist, Dr. Smartypants, I queried if other viruses were just dying off because of COVID precautions. She looked thoughtful and said, “That’s a really good question.” The existence of a flu-season with less transmission has been discussed a bit more in recent weeks in North American media (I am not sure about elsewhere). But back when I spoke with Dr. Smartypants in mid-September, it wasn’t quite on the radar yet.

COVID precautions for a milder flu season?

However, COVID-19 mitigation strategies are likely to be substantially responsible for decreased flu transmission, as seen in the Southern Hemisphere (Australia likely used in the example above by my doctor due to its similarities to Canada and the US).1 As of an article published on September 17, 2020, by the US Center for Disease Control, swab samples for influenza were coming back at positivity rates of just 2.3%, as opposed to greater than 20% in previous flu seasons. Similarly, non-flu season (“interseasonal”) positive test rates have been documented at 0.2%, compared to 1-2% in previous years.1

So, clearly, there is not any sort of eradication of flu viruses and we don’t know yet about other viruses like common cold viruses. However, it likely means that the COVID precautions we are using and people being more likely to get their flu shots this year have demonstrated the potential for a less dangerous flu season if we all keep doing our parts.

I’ll continue on this quest for my 2020 flu shot for as long as it takes to get one. I’ve had a decade of no access issues. However, I hope lessons are being learned for strategizing vaccine roll-out in future situations like this. I haven't heard anything about there being a shortage of flu vaccine.

Limitations during the pandemic

The race for a COVID vaccine is on, and we need to be able to do that right. I’m hearing that healthcare workers haven’t had their clinic shipments yet which they use for their own safety and that of their staff.

The lack of shipments also hurts those of us who are both high risk AND choose to get flu shots every other year, too! Not just me, but my grandma and many others! We can’t get vaccines as quickly as we normally do, and can’t receive the high-dose shot they normally get due to age or illness, and well, that’s troubling. Not just now, but in the big picture of a global pandemic where hope literally hinges on widespread vaccine use when it is eventually developed.

The flu shot quest continues

I know I’ll get my flu shot eventually, hopefully, sooner than later. And until then, I’ll try to pacify myself with the knowledge around the southern hemisphere flu season, COVID precautions outwitting the less-contagious influenza virus, and the fact I’m still mostly staying home. Hopefully, by the time you read this, there’s a nice dose of inactivated flu virus inside me and a well-established response to it by my immune system.

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