FREDERICTON -- New Brunswick is one of three Canadian provinces that doesn’t offer universally-covered flu shots, but some are advocating for that to change.

The flu vaccine is free for vulnerable populations, like seniors, children, or those with chronic conditions. But if you’re a healthy adult under the age of 65, the shot is usually between $20 and $25.

“New Brunswick should cover the costs of flu shots to everyone who wants one,” MLA Megan Mitton says. “A constituent came to me recently. She wanted a flu shot but she couldn’t afford it. She’s living pay cheque to pay cheque. She felt this wasn’t fair and I agree with her.”

The New Brunswick Pharmacists’ Association, Medical Society, and Lung Association agree.

“If you look at this strictly from a cost-benefit, people who are not vaccinated, or exposed, or exposing other people by not getting the vaccine, those people are going to end up in emergency rooms, which are overcrowded,” says Barbara Walls, director of health promotion at the Lung Association. “Influenza will hospitalize you if it’s bad enough, and you can also end up in the ICU.”

But there’s another barrier for some New Brunswickers this flu season.

In a memo sent to pharmacists and doctors across the province, the chief medical officer of health said: “There have been unforeseen supply issues and surge in demand creating significant challenges across all jurisdictions in Canada.”

The memo reminded health-care providers of the criteria to get a free flu shot in the province, warning that the vaccines have to go where they’re needed first.

“It is important that partners adhere to eligibility criteria to optimize the use of vaccines to ensure that people at high risk of serious illness from influenza have access to publicly funded vaccines,” the memo read.

The province usually purchases about 280,000 doses, meant for the high-risk group, according to the New Brunswick Pharmacists’ Association. The private supply is usually about 50,000 to 60,000 doses, purchased by pharmacies.

That means the vaccine is only available to about half of the New Brunswick population.

“We have seen a significant increase in demand over last year, for sure, and over last couple of years,” association executive director Paul Blanchard said. “Not really sure what’s driving it. I mean, it could be all of the debate about vaccines in schools we had throughout the summer. It could be that the vaccine was late this year and that created a lot of anxiety.”

Blanchard also says the system – where some people pay, and some don’t – is cumbersome.

“We have people who are coming to the pharmacy and they’re asking for the flu vaccine and our members will turn some of them away and say, ‘No you don’t meet the criteria,’” he said. “If somebody’s expressing an interest in getting the vaccine, with all the vaccine hesitancy concerns we’re seeing now, we believe those people should get the vaccine. We shouldn’t make it hard for people to get the vaccine.”

Blanchard says the association surveyed New Brunswickers, asking if they had received the vaccine. Just over half – about 52 per cent – said they had.

“It’s still, just barely enough to immunize half of the population and so, we think more than half should be immunized if you’re going to have an effective vaccine program.”