By Caroline Humer
NEW YORK (Reuters) – Walmart Inc, Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc, CVS Health Corp and Rite Aid Corp have told Reuters demand for flu shots at their U.S. pharmacies is up sharply – in some cases double from last year – as people try to protect themselves from influenza in the midst of a worsening COVID-19 pandemic.The pharmacies are giving millions more flu shots than they have in past years, filling a gap from COVID-19 wary consumers who are avoiding the doctor’s office. The gains represent millions of dollars in potential profit.
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 <WMT.N> 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 that may not yet be factored into many Wall Street earnings estimates.
Cowen & Co said in a research note that the flu demand will increase profit at CVS <CVS.N>, forecasting that it would beat Wall Street estimates when the company reports quarterly earnings on Nov. 6.
Rite Aid <RAD.N> flagged a 40% jump in demand and said last month 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, according to healthcare services analyst Brian Tanquilut at Jefferies LLC. In addition, the extra trip to the store may entice customers to purchase 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% of Americans planned to get the flu shot in the fall, up from a more typical 50%. A CVS survey found more people saying they would get the shot at a pharmacy.
GlaxoSmithKline Plc <GSK.L>, Sanofi SA <SASY.PA>, and CSL Ltd’s <CSL.AX> Seqirus, which manufacture flu shots used in the United States, increased production by between 10% and 20% 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. There have been more than 8.7 million U.S. cases of COVID-19 and over a quarter of a million 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 U.S. 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 <WBA.O> spokeswoman said U.S. stores are giving 50% more flu shots this year than last.
U.S. employers, who sponsor healthcare plans for about half of Americans, often provide flu shot clinics in the workplace. But in September, about 23% of employed Americans were working from home, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Demand has also been high among people aged 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.
(Reporting by Caroline Humer in New York, additional reporting by Julie Steenhuysen in Chicago; Editing by Michele Gershberg and Bill Berkrot)