Health & Fitness

Shortfalls of some cold and flu meds continue amid shifting respiratory virus season

By Jen Christensen, CNN

CNN  —  Experts say there will likely be a post-holiday bump in respiratory virus numbers, and that could put an even greater strain on supplies of some medications that have been hard to find amid a severe illness season.

Children’s pain and fever medications might be the toughest products to find. Pharmacies say high flu activity has also led to sporadic shortfalls of Tamiflu and some over-the-counter cold and flu medicine for adults. But supplies of Covid-19 home tests are plentiful, as those case numbers begin to rise again.

Stores limit purchases

The RSV season arrived early this year, and cases have dropped dramatically over the past month. But with the virus still making the rounds – along with the flu and Covid-19 – and children’s fever reducers and pain medicines are harder to come by in some places.

Pharmacies say they have seen greater demand, and some big chains are limiting purchases in order to make the most of the existing supply.

“Retailers nationwide are experiencing supplier fulfillment challenges due to increased demand of over-the-counter pediatric fever reducing products,” Walgreens spokesperson Fraser Engerman said.

Walgreens instituted limits on children’s pain and fever medications last week and continues to limit customers to six packages per online transaction to “prevent excess purchasing behavior.” It doesn’t have a limit on store purchases.

CVS is also continuing the restrictions it put in place last week.

“To ensure equitable access for all our customers, there is currently a two (2) product limit on all children’s pain relief products at all CVS Pharmacy locations and,” a spokesperson wrote in an email to CNN on Tuesday. “We’re committed to meeting our customers’ needs and are working with our suppliers to ensure continued access to these items.”

Rite Aid has a five-product limit on online purchases of children’s Tylenol and Motrin, but it does not have any in-store purchase limits.

High flu activity means high demand

Flu activity remains high across the US. There have been an estimated 18 million flu cases, 90,000 hospitalizations and 23,000 deaths this season, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By some metrics, it’s the worst flu season in a decade.

That’s led to greater demand for the medication oseltamivir, also known as Tamiflu, which can help ease and shorten flu symptoms.

Walgreens has seen isolated temporary shortages of Tamiflu, and suggests that people who have a prescription for the drug call their local pharmacy to make sure it’s available there before coming in to pick it up.

Rite Aid says it hasn’t faced Tamiflu shortages but that over-the-counter medicine can be a little trickier to find in some areas.

“We are experiencing high demand of pediatric and adult over-the-counter cold/flu medication and fever reducer/pain reliever due to high illness incidence. We are working closely with suppliers to meet the demand and mitigate shortages where possible,” Catherine Carter, Rite Aid’s manager of public relations and external communications, wrote in an email to CNN. “If customers don’t see their preferred cold/flu treatment products on the shelf, they should speak with the pharmacist for recommendations on other OTC options that best suit their needs.”

Flu hospitalizations have dropped for the second week in a row – a sign that activity is slowing in most parts of the country. The Consumer Healthcare Products Association, which represents the manufacturers of over-the-counter medications, thinks a slowdown will change the medication trend.

“We’re hopeful this continued downward trend will lessen demand in the near future,” a spokesperson wrote in an email to CNN on Tuesday.

Millions of households order free home tests

If Covid-19 follows the same pattern as after the Thanksgiving holiday, there will be wave of infections from get-togethers and close contact on planes, trains and buses.

For now, case counts remain far below prior surges, but trends are on the rise. More than 1 in 6 Americans lives in a county considered to have a “high” community level. The CDC recommends that people in these areas avoid nonessential indoor activities in public and wear a good-quality mask while out.

After Thanksgiving, Covid-19 cases were up about 58% through December 21, and deaths were up about 65%, according to Lori Tremmel Freeman, chief executive officer of the National Association of County and City Health Officials. But there isn’t as much interest in testing centers compared with this time last year.

During the Omicron wave last winter, more than 1.75 million people in the US got a Covid-19 PCR test at a pharmacy, medical office or testing center, according to the CDC’s seven-day average for the week of December 20. During the same period this year, only 382,807 people got a confirmed PCR test. But that doesn’t necessarily mean people aren’t testing.

“There’s been a radical shift to home tests,” said Mara Aspinall, a professor of practice in biomedical diagnostics at Arizona State University. “Certainly, eight times more tests are being done at home than the reported figures.”

At this point last year, home tests were a little tricky to find in some areas. But stores are now reporting plenty of supplies, and every household in the country can order up to four free tests at The White House says that in the first week after it restarted the free home test program, 11 million households took part.

Those home results are often not reported.

With a public testing site, all results are recorded by the CDC. Home test users can report results on the National Institutes of Health’s, but only about two percent of home results are reported, Aspinall said.

Also, people who get a Covid-19 reinfection probably aren’t testing as frequently as they did the first time they got sick, she said. “People who have had it before are thinking, ‘I got this. I know what it is. Of course it’s Covid,’ and they don’t obsessively test like they did the last time,” Aspinall said.

It’s still good to test for Covid-19, experts say, because treatments are available, but they work best if taken within a few days of symptoms starting.

CNN’s Deidre McPhillips and Jacqueline Howard contributed to this report.

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