U.S. public health officials have been urging Americans for months to inoculate themselves against the flu, which kills about 60,000 people a year, warning of a potential “twindemic” of influenza and the novel coronavirus that could overwhelm hospitals this winter.
More Americans are choosing to get vaccinated at local pharmacies than in the past, partly due to cancellation of annual “flu shot clinics” in workplaces that remain shut by the pandemic. Walmart reported increased demand from entire families seeking shots.
“Right out of the gate, we saw much more volume than last August,” Rite Aid chief pharmacy officer Jocelyn Konrad said. She said the company has been able to keep up with the high demand and has not seen any vaccine shortages.
The shift to pharmacies is a potential boost to the country’s biggest chains’ bottom lines. Cowen & Co. said in a research note that the flu demand will increase profit at CVS. The company beat Wall Street estimates when it reported its quarterly earnings earlier this month.
Rite Aid flagged a 40 percent jump in demand and said in September that increased immunizations will help third-quarter retail profit. Fears of coronavirus infection has led to a decrease in U.S. doctor visits, a decline in new prescriptions and a drop in pharmacy retail sales.
Flu shots are typically covered by commercial insurance and government health plans, or can cost about $40 out of pocket at a pharmacy.
Pharmacies make a gross profit of about $15 per shot, said health-care services analyst Brian Tanquilut at Jefferies. In addition, the extra trip to the store may entice customers to buy other items.
Pharmacies began laying the groundwork for increased flu shot demand early this year, anticipating that a potential second wave of coronavirus cases would push more customers their way. An early Reuters poll showed that 60 percent of Americans planned to get the flu shot in the fall, up from a more typical 50 percent. A CVS survey found more people saying they would get the shot at a pharmacy.
GlaxoSmithKline, Sanofi and CSL’s Seqirus, which manufacture flu shots used in the United States, increased production by between 10 percent and 20 percent this year for a total of about 190 million shots.
Doubling of demand
The rise in flu shots at pharmacies coincides with an increase in covid-19 cases and hospitalizations in the United States. As of Monday, there have been more than 11 million U.S. cases of covid-19 and 246,000 deaths
Walmart said it has seen a doubling of demand for shots, as it picked up customers who would normally have gone to doctors’ offices or community organizations giving flu clinics, as well as workers whose offices are closed.
In all, about 198 million flu shots are on hand for this year, up from 175 million last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
CVS, which administered 9 million shots last fall, said it expects to double that to 18 million this flu season.
Smaller rival Rite Aid, which provided 2.6 million shots last year, ordered 3.9 million for this year. Rite Aid’s Konrad said she has been checking for availability of more vaccine if needed. A Walgreens spokeswoman said U.S. stores are giving 50 percent more flu shots this year than last.
U.S. employers, who sponsor health-care plans for about half of Americans, often provide flu shot clinics in the workplace. But in September, about 23 percent of employed Americans were working from home, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Demand has been high among those 65 and older, a group at high risk for both serious flu complications and severe covid-19.
Demand is also on the rise for families whose children can more easily be vaccinated outside of pediatrician offices under new federal rules released in response to the pandemic, Walmart chief medical officer Tom Van Gilder said in an interview.
“As we see people continue to be concerned about health in general, we may well see this higher volume of vaccination carry on into the season,” Van Gilder said.