Gone by thanksgiving: Will we have enough flu vaccine in 2020?

August 18, 2020

One infectious disease expert expects a big run on the influenza vaccine this year.

For primary care physicians, the pandemic has caused many patients to delay or cancel routine care. But when it comes to the annual flu shot, one infectious disease physician is predicting that practices will see a rush to get inoculated.

“My guesstimate is that we’re going to run out of the influenza vaccine by Thanksgiving,” says MarkAlain Dery, DO, an infectious disease physician and epidemiologist with Access Health Louisiana, where he serves as the medical director of infectious diseases and chief innovation officer. “I think that people are going to flock toward the vaccine, because it's just going to be something that they can do. Most people don't have the ability to do something about coronavirus, so I think that getting vaccinated for the flu is people trying to take their health into their own hands.”

Dery says that one of his biggest fears is seeing two viral epidemics—influenza and corona—collide with one another, making the current health care crisis worse. If everyone feels the need to get vaccinated for the flu, it can prevent further stressing the system.

In the southern hemisphere, where the seasons are opposite of those in North America, there have been low numbers in terms of influenza. Dery credits this to the social distancing and face masking due to COVID, plus the limited amounts of global travel happening.

“I'm not saying that we will have a lighter influenza year, but the evidence in the southern hemisphere is certainly suggestive that we may have a lighter year, especially if everybody is face masking. I strongly suspect that that that fear of convergence of influenza and COVID-19 will hopefully be something that isn't realized.”

If the demand from patients for the flu vaccine doesn’t materialize, Dery says it’s important for physicians to take action.

“I would say that it's incumbent upon the physician and staff to really take the time and invest the energy to making sure they call their patients to come in and get vaccinated,” he says. Because most clinics ordered their flu vaccines months ago, there may not be enough to meet demand, so prioritization may be necessary. Start with the highest risk patients—elderly, immunocompromised, obese, etc.—and work from there.

“Another really important point for physicians is that they should have standing orders for their nurses, or medical assistants to be able to go ahead and just give the influenza vaccine for everybody who comes into the office,” says Dery. “So this way, even before I see the patient, my MA has already vaccinated my patients. It's been ordered for me and I just go and sign it when I sign off on the patient's chart.”

If patient demand outstrips a practice’s supply of influenza vaccine, he says the best option is to send them to a large commercial pharmacy that provides vaccinations.

Dery says the good news heading into flu season is that most practices have an influenza rapid test, allowing them to quickly determine whether a patient has the flu or if it’s something else, like COVID. A rapid test for COVID may also be available soon, further helping doctors’ diagnosis efforts. “I don’t see patients being unsure about what they have being stressful on physicians, except for the fact that you never want to see your patients not feeling well,” says Dery. “They should be able to test for them pretty easily.”