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Unique challenges for Alberta pharmacists this upcoming flu shot season

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With no confirmed cases of influenza in Alberta last year, one Edmonton area pharmacist is unsure what to expect

Alberta pharmacists are gearing up to deliver this year’s flu shots. 

Starting on Oct. 18, everybody in Alberta ages five and older can book an appointment to get their vaccine at participating pharmacies and health clinics. “Children under the age of five must be immunized at an AHS Public Health Clinic or physician’s office,” AHS states on their website.

The 2021-2022 flu season marks just the 13th year that Alberta has offered free influenza vaccines province wide.  According to the AHS website, prior to this, influenza vaccines were primarily offered to those most at risk of disease and complications.

This year, the flu season is set to bring some unique challenges according to Sherwood Park pharmacist of 30 years, Pam Schotte-Houle. “Little bit of anxiety going into flu season not knowing what people are going to think about getting the flu shot this year because there were no laboratory confirmed cases in Alberta last year,” she explains.

In an interview with CTV News Lethbridge in January of 2021, the director of the Alberta community influenza surveillance program, Dr. James Dickinson explained that the measures that people were taking to prevent the spread of COVID-19 also helped prevent the spread of influenza. 

In the same article mentioned previously, Dr. Dickinson explained that efforts to test for the flu remained the same in 2020-2021 as in previous years, and that the Alberta community influenza surveillance program was also testing for influenza cases at a few COVID testing centres across the province. 

After no laboratory confirmed influenza cases last year, Pam Schotte-Houle is not sure how many people are going to get their flu shot this year. “It’s really hard to know what the demand is and how to be prepared for the demand since you don’t know what it’s going to be,” she explained. 

According to the AHS website, a new vaccine is developed every year. It contains three or four influenza strains that are most likely to make you sick. However, if the influenza vaccine ends up not being a perfect match to the viruses that end up spreading, it can still lower the likelihood of severe outcomes.

The influenza vaccines Albertans will be receiving this season, according to Schotte-Houle, will protect against two strains of influenza A, H1N1 and H3N2, as well as two strains of influenza B.

Schotte-Houle wants to remind people of the importance of getting the flu shot, saying that influenza can kill. 

“Influenza is a respiratory infection, it’s not the stomach, it’s not the vomiting or diarrhea, it’s a really nasty, painful, respiratory infection where your whole body hurts and the couch is your best friend,” she continues.

This flu season presents the first time that pharmacies will be administering both COVID vaccines and influenza vaccines. This overlap creates “lots of worries and lots of concerns,” for Schotte-Houle. Ensuring safety, managing workload, and tracking vaccines are challenges that she is currently facing.

She explains that keeping track of the vaccines people already had and will receive in the future is the cause of the stress for her. 

“I can just imagine all the potential errors that could happen,” she said.

Throughout the pandemic, pharmacists have been under a lot of stress. At the beginning of the pandemic, medication shortages resulted in more frequent visits from patients, sourcing PPE was challenging at times and maintaining cleanliness standards between patients has increased the workload.

Another problem Schotte-Houle has faced as a pharmacist recently has to do with the Alberta Vaccine Booking System (AVBS) that was implemented by the provincial government for COVID vaccines.

“AVBS in theory would work great, but unfortunately it doesn’t screen people properly so many people are coming into the pharmacy that do not qualify,” she explained. 

Schotte-Houle had to turn many people away when they arrived for their appointment they booked through AVBS because the booking system was allowing people to make vaccine appointments at times when they were not eligible, requiring Schotte-Houle to have to ask many people to leave after she properly screened them at the pharmacy. During the initial phases of the COVID vaccine rollout, Schotte-Houle invested in an additional staff member to screen patients prior to being allowed into the pharmacy for their vaccine appointment.

“Pharmacists developed their own booking system that met all privacy regulations and then the government comes out with this provincial-wide one that they want to use that’s not user friendly and is causing a lot of confusion and frustration and aggravation,” she explained.

The aggravation she mentioned has caused “a lot of verbal harassment, sometimes it’s a daily basis,” she said. 

Despite this, she’s excited for continued pharmacist involvement in public health. At the pharmacy she manages, Schotte-Houle is hoping to administer between 750 to 1,000 flu vaccines this season. Starting Oct. 18, everybody in Alberta ages five and older can get their flu shot at participating pharmacies and health clinics either by booking an appointment or on a walk-in basis. 

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