Vaccines delayed as province’s overcrowded hospitals brace for flu season

Distribution delays for the flu vaccine will likely mean some people in Ontario have to wait a little longer to get their shots this year — and one doctor says that might actually be a blessing in disguise.

But in an overburdened health care system, others are preaching caution and bracing for a harsh flu season to hit the city this year.

“It seems as if we’re in line for a very difficult flu season,” said Allan Malek, chief pharmacy officer for the Ontario Pharmacists Association.

The province says distribution delays for the vaccine stem from the World Health Organization taking longer to identify the common influenza strains circulating this year.

“Additionally, there have been production issues with some of the manufacturers of the flu vaccine,” said Anna Miller, spokesperson for the Ministry of Health and Long Term Care, in an email.

Despite those delays, Ontario received its initial shipments of the vaccine beginning in late September. Those are largely intended for seniors and people who are at high risk for flu complications and hospitalization, who should be vaccinated early.

The province says health care providers will receive their main supply of vaccines “in the coming weeks,” but didn’t provide a firm date.

For the average person, waiting a little bit to get the flu shot might actually be a good idea, said Dr. Sohail Gandhi, president of the Ontario Medical Association.

He told CBC News that the ideal time to get a flu shot is after the first week of November. That’s because, he says, it takes about three to four weeks to kick in, and is only effective for a few months.

By waiting, people’s immunity levels would be at their best around peak flu season, Gandhi said.

“If we still get it by the end of the first week of November, that will be good for the population,” he said. “The bigger concern for me is not enough people getting the flu shot.”

Only 42 per cent of Canadian adults reported getting the flu shot last season, though that’s up from 38 per cent in the 2017-18 season and 36 per cent in 2016-17, according to the national Influenza Vaccine Coverage Survey.

“That’s just not good enough,” Gandhi said.

Hospitals at capacity

Even if the delays aren’t earth shattering, some doctors are still worried about the upcoming flu season. Kevin Smith, president and CEO of University Health Network (UHN) in Toronto, says hospitals across the province are stretched thin as it is.

“It’s obviously worrisome,” he said.

Emergency department wait times are also high, and the OHA says that’s one of the first signs of a larger capacity crisis.

In January of 2017, 10 per cent of patients waited more than 39 hours to be admitted. By January of 2018, that wait grew to 41 hours.

The report says many hospitals in the province regularly operate at over 100 per cent capacity, although the widely accepted standard for hospital capacity is around 85 per cent.

‘That storm we all dread’

Flu season is looming large this year because it has already hit so hard in places like Australia, which saw an earlier start to its flu season this year and a higher number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

Australia is a country Canada looks to for information because of their advanced surveillance of the virus, but it’s not a direct indicator of what will happen here.

UHN hospitals are running over 100 per cent occupancy every single day, Smith says, and additional visits from people with the flu could increase those pressures even more.

“It could be that storm that we all dread,” Smith said.

He also advocated that people get vaccinated as soon as they’re able.

“The sooner we can get people vaccinated, the greater the likelihood we can get them protected,” he said.

Premier Doug Ford has repeatedly pledged to end overcrowding within the province’s hospitals, though results on that front have been harder to come by.

Ford said earlier this year that his government would end what’s been dubbed “hallway medicine” within a year.

Not long after, Health Minister Christine Elliott said the problem is complex, and may take longer than the year Ford promised.

Elliott said at the time that addressing the issue will require the government to build more long-term care spaces, improve addictions and mental health funding, and address hospital patient flows.

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