Pharmacy Update: Pandemic Impacts Flu Vaccine Supply and Demand

2020 was certainly a year to remember for many reasons. As the year unfolded with one major historic once-in-a-lifetime-event after another, much can be learned as we reflect and prepare for the coming year. While the CDC’s recommendation for the flu vaccine has not wavered, some interesting observations can be made. 

Early in 2020, experts weighed and predicted that a ‘twindemic’ (a combination of flu season and the COVID-19 pandemic) was on the horizon. Given the similarities in the symptomatology of the flu and COVID-19 and the similarities in transmission, it is easy to see why the demand for the flu vaccine increased and started much earlier in the season.  

As of mid January 2020, a record 193 million doses of flu vaccine were distributed. Additionally, ~11 million more doses were administered during this flu season compared to the previous season. While the number of doses given in medical offices remained about the same, the number of doses given in pharmacies increased by ~42%.  The impact has been noted with a record low hospitalization rate of 0.7% per 100,000 people which is well below the national average of 2.6% and the lowest it has ever been since routine data collection started in 2005.  To provide some perspective, 0.7% is one third of the lowest season recorded in 2011-2012.  Certainly, masks, increased social distancing and hand hygiene, limited capacity, the willingness to stay home at the first signs of symptoms have also played a role in limiting the spread of the flu.  

Interestingly, the number of unused flu vaccines sitting in hospital refrigerators is higher than normal. Perhaps this is due to decreased non-COVID related hospitalizations in general compounded by the shift towards outpatient medical management. Another factor may be a shift of patients seeking a flu shot from a local pharmacy. The demand for the flu vaccine is projected to far exceed the supply for 2021-2022, leaving pharmacists scratching their heads on how to prepare for next year. There are several key considerations when planning for the 2021-2022 flu season. One consideration should be anticipated vaccination efforts whether that be employees, patients, or outpatient clinics and how that compares to this year. Will vaccination efforts be expanded? Another consideration is whether or not those supportive preventive measures (masks, social distancing, limit capacity) will still be in place. The COVID vaccine availability and recommendations for additional dosing may have an impact. For most, pre-booking the same number of flu vaccines makes the most sense unless vaccination efforts will be expanded. We have learned the importance of being flexible and adapting to change as it comes.