Q and A with the experts: flu shots and COVID-19

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Nancy WaiteCanadian health-care professionals are expecting an increase in demand for influenza vaccinations for the upcoming flu season.

Professor Nancy Waite at the University of Waterloo School of Pharmacy conducts research into the influenza vaccine, vaccine decision-making and strategies to encourage vaccination. With flu season around the corner—and Australian pharmacies reporting a 180 percent increase in people getting the flu shot this year over last—Prof. Waite shares what to expect as we move into flu season amidst a global pandemic.

What factors influence vaccine decision-making?

A lot of people think that you are either pro-vaccination or anti-vaccination. However, vaccine decision-making is seldom that simple. Most of us have questions about one vaccine or the other at some point and we may be “hesitant” until we get that question answered. As a result, it is best to think of vaccine decision-making as being on a continuum. Everyone is somewhere between vaccine acceptance and vaccine refusal, with most people being closer to vaccine acceptance. 

What strategies can encourage people to get vaccinated? 

One of the factors most likely to encourage people to get vaccinated is to have their questions answered by someone they trust – usually their health-care professional or a public health official. Searching on the web can be confusing as jurisdictions have different vaccine recommendations, and there is a lot of inaccurate and incomplete information out there. So it is best to write your questions down and contact your doctor, nurse or pharmacist to get your answers. 

The other thing we know is that people just forget to be vaccinated – for example, do you know when your last tetanus shot was? – or aren’t aware that they are at risk for a specific disease and should get the associated vaccine. Another factor that encourages people to get vaccinated is for their health-care professional to remind them about relevant vaccinations and to vaccinate them at that health-care visit. It’s great if you can be the prompt for this by asking questions like “am I up-to-date on my vaccines?”

Finally, one of the barriers to getting vaccinated is time. We lead busy lives and getting vaccinated has to fit in amongst all of our other priorities. That is why getting your flu shot at a pharmacy is so popular. Pharmacists are the leading flu vaccinator in Canada; they have convenient locations and hours, and appointments are not usually required.  

With flu season approaching, will COVID-19 impact vaccination rates? 

Yes. More people will want to get vaccinated this year against the flu. 

We have seen this play out in Australia where the flu season has already overlapped with COVID-19. Some pharmacy chains were reporting 180% more flu vaccinations being given early in the season. 

In addition, our research team has completed a survey with Canadians over 50 and even those who did not receive the flu vaccine in previous years indicated they were more likely to get vaccinated this year. Some of the reasons include increased awareness about how serious viruses can be and the concern that having the flu would make them more vulnerable to COVID-19.

A small percent said they were less likely to vaccinated for the flu as they didn’t want to risk getting exposed to COVID-19 in the vaccination setting and their self-isolation would decrease their risk of flu. 

To help decrease the COVID-19 exposure risk, health-care providers are taking extra precautions this year. They will be wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) and many will have vaccination times/clinics so that those getting vaccinated will not interact with sick patients. 

Overall, we are expecting an increase in the number of flu shots and Public Health Units, physician offices and pharmacies are all preparing for a very busy flu vaccine administration time this fall.