As Officials Urge People To Get Flu Shots, Some Local Departments Face Vaccine Shortages

Increased Demand Leads To Temporary Shortage As Orders Are Filled

Medical professional preparing a vaccine
Pan American Health Organization (CC-BY-ND)

Health officials have been urging people to get their flu shots early this year over fears of a possible “twindemic” during the COVID-19 crisis. Now, some local health departments in Wisconsin are seeing temporary shortages of the flu vaccine as they’ve seen increased demand.

The Oneida County Health Department has run out its supply of flu shots, prompting health officials to postpone all flu clinics until further notice.

Public Health nurse Rebecca Lohagen said more people are getting vaccinated this year who typically don’t get a flu shot in the county of roughly 35,000. Health officials usually order more than 2,000 doses of the flu vaccine along with an additional 400 doses for children.

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“Normally, we push, and we market, and we struggle getting through all of those vaccines,” said Lohagen. “This year, it’s definitely not an issue of having too many. It’s an issue of having enough.”

Lohagen said the county placed its order for flu shots with the pharmaceutical company Sanofi last year before the coronavirus spurred a global pandemic. The county has since been added to a waitlist for more doses.

She said they hope to get a shipment this week of the high-dose flu vaccine that’s approved for people who are 65 and older. But, it’s unclear when they’ll receive a shipment of the regular vaccine for most adults.

“We do encourage individuals to reach out to other organizations as well,” said Lohagen. “Different shipments are coming in at different times. Local pharmacies, clinics — they all have vaccine available.”

Ashland County Public Health held a drive-thru clinic for flu shots on Oct. 14 and planned to hold another event on Oct. 28. But, around 140 people turned out to get vaccinated, according to Liz Szot, the county’s public health officer. She said that’s far more people than they typically see in a normal year.

“We thought we had an adequate supply of flu vaccine, but it was just such a great turnout that we’re currently out of our supply,” said Szot.

Health officials had increased their order of flu shots this year with around 250 doses set aside in the county of roughly 16,000. Orders are typically based on interest from people in the prior year.

“We’re attempting to place another order right now,” Szot said. “With it being peak dispersal of flu vaccine, there’s a waitlist for additional orders.”

Szot said it’s unknown when additional flu shots will arrive. The health department canceled its next flu clinic because the order is unlikely to be delivered before the end of the month. But, she emphasized the flu shot is still available at other providers and pharmacies in the area.

In a briefing with reporters on Tuesday, state Department of Health Services Secretary Andrea Palm said Wisconsin has seen around 280,000 more people get vaccinated for the seasonal flu to date compared to the same time last year.

“Moving forward, I think what you’re seeing in Wisconsin, and across the country, is that there will be ample supply of flu vaccine,” said Palm. “But, we are seeing some delay in delivery.”

Manufacturers are expected to produce between 194 million to 198 million doses of flu vaccine for the 2020-2021 flu season, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Last year, the CDC estimates 400,000 people were hospitalized for the flu and 22,000 died.

The federal agency has been urging people to get vaccinated for seasonal flu during the COVID-19 pandemic as many people who are at higher risk for complications from the flu also face more risk if infected with the coronavirus.

Less than half of Wisconsin adults — 48 percent — got a flu shot during the 2019-2020 flu season. Vaccinations were much higher among children with 60 percent of kids 17 and under receiving a flu shot.

Larger health departments like Public Health Madison and Dane County have not experienced vaccine shortages. A PHMDC spokesperson said in an email that the county ordered 6,000 doses in anticipation of increased demand for flu shots — around 10 times what they’ve administered in previous years.

“Some local health departments, especially the smaller ones, are overwhelmed by dealing with COVID-19 and have suspended doing flu shot clinics,” DHS spokesperson Jennifer Miller told WPR.

Wisconsin has eight of the top 20 metro areas in the nation with the greatest number of new coronavirus cases, according to monitoring by the New York Times. New cases of the virus across the country have increased by 34 percent in the last two weeks.

Miller urged people to use the website VaccineFinder to find pharmacies or providers that are offering the flu shot in their areas.