Access to flu vaccine stock has been erratic in the face of “unprecedented” demand, though more should be reaching community pharmacies soon
Health authorities have been pushing early influenza vaccination this year to reduce the burden of the flu season combined with COVID-19, leading to a huge rush on pharmacies.
However access to flu vaccines has been inconsistent across pharmacies, with some receiving large amounts of stock on time, while others received them late or less than the quantity ordered.
Community pharmacy proprietor Caroline Diamantis, who runs a pharmacy in the Sydney suburb of Balmain, told AJP it’s been “a rollercoaster of stock and no stock, and stock and no stock”.
“I found it impossible to get at the very beginning and I waited for ever like everybody else,” she said.
“One of my colleagues received hers 10 days before me, the supplier explained that the TGA approves one brand at a time and the brand I ordered was going to be approved the following week.
“At that time I heard there was stock in other pharmacies and I was desperate, I must have taken 400 names of people who were on our waiting list.”
She said it was “madness” when the authorities first announced in April that people should get their flu vaccinations earlier rather than later.
“We had a crazy period where we had to take the phone off the plug for periods of half an hour to an hour because the phone would not stopping ringing with people desperate for flu vaccines,” said Ms Diamantis.
“Eventually I had a large order come and I used them all up. I was very lucky though, as I had placed the order in November last year. After that, I tried a top-up order but that didn’t work.
“In the end I was really lucky and got a further couple of hundred after being out of stock for about two weeks, and now we’ve got nothing. We’re in the queue waiting for new stock that’s coming.”
The April peak observed by Ms Diamantis is reflected in recent MedAdvisor statistics, which revealed a more than 300% increase in flu vaccinations administered in pharmacies in April than the same month last year.
“People are also getting the shot much earlier than the regular peak demand month which is usually May,” said MedAdvisor CEO Robert Read.
Elise Apolloni, pharmacy co-proprietor of Capital Chemist Wanniassa in the ACT, says the demand has been “like so many things, unprecedented”.
“We ordered heaps of stock, but our pre-order was done in November the year before so we had no idea about COVID back then,” she told AJP.
“In terms of private vaccines, we have be inundated and ran out very quickly – within around eight days! People who have never had their flu shot are commencing, which is great, but we had no crystal ball ability to factor that in back in November last year,” said Ms Apolloni.
However her pharmacy still has stock of the over-65s flu vaccine, which ACT pharmacies can administer under the National Immunisation Program.
“We understand there will be another lot of vaccines coming through the supply chain again shortly. We have a super long wait list, but there is simply no way we will be able to fill all the requests we have for vaccinations,” she said.
“But I do know that the public is now very aware pharmacists can vaccinate – we have been here and open the entire time, we have adopted safety measures to protect our patients and staff, and we have provided no barriers to people accesses flu vaccinations when stock is available.”
We have a super long wait list, but there is simply no way we will be able to fill all the requests we have for vaccinations.—Elise Apolloni, Capital Chemist Wanniassa
Meanwhile some rural pharmacies struggled to gain access to stock, particularly in early days.
The Rural Pharmacy Network of Australia ran a poll across its members in early April regarding flu shots.
Among 43 respondents, some pharmacies reported receiving less than they ordered at that time, or that they hadn’t received their order at all.
Fredrik Hellqvist and Katie Stott, proprietors of Dover Pharmacy in Tasmania, said they received the amount of flu vaccines they ordered.
However they added that they do not do a great deal of flu vaccinations in the area, taking into consideration the role of the local GP surgery.
There should be further supplies incoming under the NIP, as the Federal Government announced on 19 April that it had secured three million additional doses of influenza vaccines, to be made available through community pharmacies and GPs over May and June.
The Department of Health highlighted that while it is responsible for the management and implementation of the NIP, it “does not have oversight or a contractual arrangement to oversee the forecasting, supply and distribution of vaccines in the private market.”
“These arrangements are managed by individual vaccine manufacturers and suppliers,” a Health Department spokesperson told AJP.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has led to an unprecedented level of demand for influenza vaccines.
“The Department of Health is committed to working closely with its state and territory colleagues, as well as vaccine suppliers, to actively manage supplies of influenza vaccines and ensure they are where they are needed. Already, the Therapeutic Goods Administration has released over 15.9 million doses of seasonal influenza vaccines for the Australian market,” the spokesperson said.
Local flu vaccine manufacturer Seqirus also announced on 19 April that it was going back into production to supply Australians approximately two million additional flu vaccines for the 2020 flu season.
These are to be released into the private market, it said.
Seqirus added that it was “already on track to supply Australians a record number of influenza vaccines this season”, with the additional stock taking their total supply to around nine million influenza vaccines.
“It’s important to note that the supply of these additional doses won’t be instantaneous – our team will be working hard to manufacture doses, but patients should phone their clinic or pharmacy ahead of time to ensure the vaccines have arrived and are available,” said Seqirus.
“We will be working closely with distributors across the country to make sure the vaccines are available as soon as possible, in areas of high demand.”
Community pharmacist and proprietor Curtin Ruhnau told AJP that the demand for flu vaccines has been “amazing”, with bookings for his western Sydney pharmacy coming in from all over the city.
So far this year, his pharmacy has administered double the amount of flu vaccinations he initially ordered.
Despite now being out of stock, Mr Ruhnau’s pharmacists continue to receive at least five requests a day from patients for flu vaccinations.
“We don’t have any more stock but there’s no guarantee on when or whether we could get any,” he said.
Mr Ruhnau also noted that plenty of pharmacies have struggled to get stock in this year.
“I know there are some that are pretty sore that they didn’t receive it till late,” he said.
Community pharmacist and proprietor Adele Tahan, from inner west Sydney, said she has “plenty” of the flu vaccine stock remaining as she also ordered a large amount last year.
For her, the amount of patients coming in to get vaccinated at her Rozelle pharmacy has not slowed down – “it’s still going,” she said.