Health authorities are encouraging at-risk citizens to have their flu vaccine as we face into the first full winter where influenza and COVID-19 will circulate at the same time. European countries have consistently fallen short in their efforts to reach 75% of older people with flu vaccination, raising concerns of a ‘twindemic’ of flu and COVID-19.
Pharmacists in several countries can deliver vaccines to older people and those with chronic diseases. But this year, there’s a problem: people at the greatest risk of flu complications are largely the same groups most vulnerable to COVID-19. Some hesitate to leave home unless necessary, others are frail or have difficulty with mobility.
Now some policymakers are responding by handing pharmacists new powers. In the UK, the government will allow pharmacists to vaccinate staff and residents in care homes. The move came as concerns grew that even a mild flu season, in tandem with a surge in COVID-19, could push hospitals to breaking point.
New legislation in Ireland will give pharmacists the power to vaccinate at-risk individuals outside the pharmacy setting. The law would pave the way for pharmacists to visit patients in their homes on request to administer vaccines. They could even offer drive-through vaccination services if necessary.
‘While we do not yet have a vaccine against COVID-19, we do against flu, and we need to encourage uptake of this vaccine by making it as easy as possible for those most at risk to access it,’ said Darragh O’Loughlin, General Secretary of the Irish Pharmacy Union. ‘Broadening the locations where pharmacists can vaccinate will significantly increase uptake and will help build immunity from flu among the population.’
He described the news as a ‘game-changer’, adding that pharmacists would like similar powers to offer vaccines against pneumococcal disease in their homes.
Reaching at-risk groups
With health systems under pressure, community pharmacies are increasingly seen as having a role to play in preventative care. The PGEU, which represents pharmacists in the EU, says they are well-placed to identify at-risk groups and increase public confidence in vaccination.
‘We cannot stop coronavirus yet, but we can mitigate the detrimental effects of a combination of COVID-19 and seasonal flu on health systems in the next months,’ said PGEU President, Duarte Santos. ‘We strongly encourage national governments to make use of the widely accessible network of pharmacies across Europe to assist in efficient immunisation strategies and broaden vaccination opportunities.’
He added that pharmacists should play a bigger role in planning flu vaccination campaigns and should be included in priority access groups for the flu vaccine.
Several countries have reported delays in receiving vaccines and there are concerns of a global shortage given the surge in demand. Flu vaccines take more than a year to manufacture so, while production has scaled up to boost supply, it may fall short of the unprecedented demand from governments concerned about a ‘twindemic’ of flu and COVID-19.