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This Impossible-to-Get Vaccine (Not COVID, The Other One!)

Ontario cup, Ottawa, November 2020
Ontario cup, Ottawa, November 2020

Several expressions that already feel far too familiar were only coined over the summer. I’m sure you master “second wave” by now, as in “watch out, it doesn’t look like COVID-19 is going away.” “Red zone” is another one, as in “the curve isn’t flattening, guys.” And finally, “twindemic,” as in “holy shit, we may have to deal with COVID-19 and the seasonal flu at the same time.”

Even the most optimistic predictions were pretty gloomy long before the second wave did hit Europe and North America. And indeed, COVID-19 is still stubbornly refusing to retire its title of “2020 top disruptor.” Many places around the world now use a colour-coded system and cities are routinely moved in and out of “red zone” status, which can mean anything from full lockdown with shelter-in-place order to selective shutdown of non-essential businesses.

The only glimmer of hope could have been the “twindemic” issue for which there’s a relatively reliable fix, the one we’re missing for COVID—the flu vaccine.

And this is where Ontario screwed up.

I’m mad.

Getting or not the flu shot is a polarizing topic, like a million of personal life decisions debated for absolutely no reason on Twitter and elsewhere. In my educated, practical and otherwise properly immunized social circle, it’s 50-50. Some of my friends skip it because reasons and others get it every year because reasons as well—at this end of the day, we’re still friends and frankly, vaccination doesn’t come up often in conversations except this year.

The three of us only started getting the flu shot when Mark was at daycare. For a while, he was bringing back a new bug every week and a vaccine sounded like the best way to avoid at least one of them. After all, why not? I’m happy to point out typos on healthcare posters and flyers but this is the extent of my medical skills—I don’t have the scientific background to question flu vaccine safety and reliability. I trust public health officials more than a random dude on Facebook. My experience with the flu shot so far has been good so far, zero side effect for a no-fee five-minute chore that gives me peace of mind.

And this may also be why I’ve been getting the flu shot every year—it has to be the most efficient medical procedure Canada offers.

Since it’s very difficult to secure a family doctor and a same-year appointment, the flu shot is offered in convenient places like community health centres or your nearest supermarket. There’s some Canadian logic into it—if you can buy chips and lottery tickets at the pharmacy, it’s therefore normal to get immunized between the produce and cookie aisle.

We usually get the flu shot at Loblaws, a supermarket chain. No appointment required, we just walk in, fill up a consent form, hand out our Ontario health cards and wait five minutes for a nurse to be ready. Once the shot is administered, we get a funky bandage to post on social media how brave we were and a piece of leftover Halloween candy as a reward. Then life goes on.

I suspected the process would be a bit more difficult this year to keep up with the nothing-is-easy-in-2020 theme. I started enquiring about flu vaccine availability in September. Loblaws had the usual “the flu shot is available right here, every day and without appointment” poster but it turned out that they didn’t actually have vaccine doses yet. Shoppers Drug Mart set the tone with a poster that said “influenza vaccines in our pharmacies are subject to availability”—and indeed, availability was zero. Rexall Pharmacy advised me book an appointment online. “Unfortunately, we’re fully booked for this week… well, until late October, I believe.”

Eventually, late September, I managed to book us at Rexall for November 9.

Meanwhile, I kept an eye on possible earlier opportunities but my friends confirmed all pharmacies seemed to be having problems securing doses. “I ask about it every day on my way to work,” one of them confessed. “They’ve been telling me to come back the next day for five weeks now.”

On November 1, I received the following email from Rexall.

Flu shot cancellation email from Rexall, November 1, 2020
Flu shot cancellation email from Rexall, November 1, 2020

It wasn’t personal—my friends all received the same email.

“And now what?”

And now, well, apparently nothing. The Premier of Ontario claimed the flu shot campaign was a success but clearly, plenty of us who wanted to be vaccinated weren’t able to. This is purely anecdotal, but none of my friends or acquaintances in Ottawa were able to get their flu shot because of shortages. The program is being paused. There’s no more supply.

Even though I’m questioning some of the COVID-19 measures—more exactly, lockdown and shutdown effectiveness—I do take them seriously and I’m trying my best to “stop the spread.”

I understand governments need our help as citizens to flatten the curve and that we need to take proper precautions. But in turn, we need government’s help for part of the plan. I mean, I’m not using a YouTube tutorial to manufacture my own flu shot.

If you’re going to run a flu campaign and tell people to get immunized to avoid overwhelming the healthcare system, plan for it. Of course, demand is high this year, what the fuck did you expect?

Yeah, I’m not too optimistic about a potential COVID-19 mass vaccination campaign…

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