BISMARCK, N.D. – With a shortage of flu vaccine across the country, Margaret Holmen and others from the Powers Lake Senior Citizens Center have been talking about going to Canada for their shots. Clinics and pharmacies across the border are offering to inoculate U.S. residents, and Holmen said she planned to call clinics in Estevan, Saskatchewan, if she cannot get a flu shot in North Dakota this week.
"Everybody here is thinking about it," said Holmen, the senior center's manager. "We hear on the news that we should be patient, but we don't know what to do."
Word of Canada's vaccine availability is spreading quickly. Eighty Americans showed up for flu shots Tuesday at Henders Drug in Estevan — located about nine miles north of the North Dakota border — although the store's newspaper advertisement hadn't even run yet.
"I suspect there will be a lot more," said Larry Preddy, pharmacist and co-owner of the store. He charges Americans the same price as Canadians — $15 Canadian or about $12 U.S.
The U.S. vaccine shortage was caused when British regulators shut down U.S.-bound shipments from Chiron Corp. (search), after some batches of the vaccine were found to be contaminated with bacteria. The decision cut the U.S. supply of flu shots almost in half.
Canada does not have a shortage because it doesn't get vaccine from the British supplier.
Urgent Care Niagara's Fort Erie clinic, just across the border from Buffalo, said it would vaccinate 100 Americans a day, for around $40 U.S. each, squeezing them in among Canadian patients who got first priority.
Virginia Matysiak was No. 100. She and her son Kenneth picked up the number after waiting in line then killed time at the nearby Fort Erie Race Track and Slots. "We ate lunch and played and came back" — $100 richer, she said.
"So they're paying us to get a flu shot," Kenneth Matysiak said.
Several cars with New York license plates were parked outside the Urgent Care clinic Tuesday and the waiting room was filled with Americans holding the coveted numbers. Urgent Care's Niagara Falls clinic also was vaccinating 100 non-Canadians a day.
Officials at the Canadian clinic said vaccine provided by the provincial government was being given only to Canadian citizens, but that the clinic had purchased surplus doses for sale to non-Canadians in high-risk categories.
Perry Kendall, British Columbia's chief health officer, said there has been some interest at a walk-in flu-shot clinic at the Vancouver airport.
Ross Findlater, Saskatchewan's chief health officer, said Americans are welcome to get flu shots in the province, as long as they do not come in droves.
"A couple hundred or a thousand, overall, from a provincial point of view wouldn't be a problem," he said.
Saskatchewan will track the number of people coming north through shot clinics offered by public health offices. Those shots are free to Canadians considered at high risk from the flu, but Americans would be charged about $16 U.S., Findlater said.
"Most of (the public health units) have some sort of capacity in flu clinics to immunize healthy people who are willing to pay," he said.
Independent doctors and pharmacies in the province get their vaccine from a separate pool, and will not be tracked, Findlater said.
Some health officials in Canadian provinces are concerned about the effect a massive influx of American patients could have. British Columbia's Health Minister, Colin Hansen, said recently that the drug supply situation was too much for the provinces to deal with individually and that it should be tackled by the federal government.
"When we hear both candidates for the presidency of the U.S.A. talk about allowing Americans easier access to medicines purchased from Canada, there has to be a federal government response," and not just each province keeping an eye on the impacts of cross-border shopping, Hansen said.
Also Tuesday, the Food and Drug Administration (search) was investigating how unlicensed vaccine ended up being shipped to Florida. The vaccine was to be given starting Wednesday at clinics in Orange, Seminole and Osceola counties.
The vaccine came from Shire Pharmaceuticals Group (search), a British company that sold its vaccine division in September to a Canadian company, ID Biomedical.