A major chain of pharmacies has “temporarily paused” flu shot vaccinations amid supply issues.

In a statement provided to CP24 on Monday, Rexall said that it has “communicated to customers and patients that flu shots have been temporarily paused,” even for those who have already booked their appointments to receive one.

The pharmacy chain says that while “all efforts” are being made to secure additional dosages“promptly” vaccine supply is ultimately “determined and allocated by the provincial Ministry of Health.”

At this point it is unclear whether other pharmacies are still taking appointments for flu shots or going ahead with previously scheduled ones.

In a separate statement, Loblaw’s refused to say whether flu shots were still being offered at participating Shoppers Drug Mart locations but did concede that there has been a “high demand for flu shots” and said that the company was “working closely with our public health partners to get in vaccinations as quickly as we can.”

The province has previously said that it has ordered 5.4 million individual doses of the flu vaccine this year, which is an increase on the 4.4 million doses it ordered in 2019.

It has, however, already delivered 4.7 million of those doses to providers.

Speaking with reporters at Queen’s Park on Monday afternoon, Health Minister Christine Elliott said that her government is moving “on all fronts” to secure additional vaccines “as quickly as possible.”

In a subsequent statement provided to CP24, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Health confirmed to CP24 that those efforts have included a request that the remaining doses acquired through the federal government’s national bulk purchasing program be delivered “at an accelerated rate.”

Elliot also indicated that discussions were underway with several global suppliers, who might be able to provide Ontario with additional vaccines.

“Some of it is outside of our control just in terms of regulations in other countries but we are doing whatever we can just to make sure we can bring them in,” she said.

Demand up 500 per cent at pharmacies

The Ford government has previously said that this year’s flu shot campaign would be the largest in Ontario’s history but it would appear that the number of vaccines it initially ordered is not enough to meet the surging demand amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

In an interview with CP24 earlier on Monday, Ontario Pharmacist Association CEO Justin Bates, said that there has been a 500 per cent increase in the number of people looking to book an appointment to get their flu shots at pharmacies compared to last year.

He said that the “unprecedented demand” is a “good problem to have” but has left many pharmacies scrambling to get their hands on enough doses to continue offering the flu shot.

“There are very complex supply chain challenges and right now pharmacies have run out of the vaccine,” he said.

Province has said shortages will be ‘temporary’

Elliot had said as recently as Oct. 22 that any flu shot shortages this year would be “temporary” due to gaps in the shipment schedule.

On Monday she conceded that the supply issues are more significant than that but she also said that the government “did plan to purchase an extra volume if we needed to” and set aside $26.5 million for that purpose.

Premier Doug Ford also said during a subsequent briefing that more than one million doses have already been delivered to pharmacies. He said that the problem is that some pharmacies have booked people without regard for how many doses they were being allocated.

“As for my friends in Rexall you knew the allocations you had so don’t overbook people. It is as simple as that,” he said. “If you know you have X amount of flu shots book X amount of flu shots. But if you know you only have 100 flu shots don’t book 200 people.”

In addition to the shortages experienced by pharmacies, demand for appointments to get the flu shot at Toronto Public Health clinics has also been high.

Those clinics are now booked up until at least Dec. 8.

“I think at the end of the day, I’m still not entirely sure if everybody who wants a flu shot will get a flu shot. I certainly hope that’s the case but I think it’s clearly going to take time and a little bit of patience,” infectious disease specialist Dr. Issac Bogoch told CP24 earlier on Monday. “We’re not seeing influenza just yet but that means we should still be getting our flu shots and preparing for it and I think this is time to continue to check in with the pharmacies in your area, with your primary care provider because it looks like we’re seeing a staggered approach. We are seeing boluses of flu shots coming in and they’re being administered, they run out and a week later they get more, they’re administered, they run out.”

The Ministry of Health has said that the province has already distributed about one million more doses of the flu vaccine than they had at this point last year. They have also said that pharmacies had received four to five times more doses by the end of October than they usually get by that point in a typical year.