CALGARY — The head of the Alberta agency in charge of distributing the swine flu vaccine says he won’t apologize for choices made by the government despite a reversal on who will be allowed to get the shots.
Stephen Duckett, president of Alberta Health Services, said Monday that many people who otherwise wouldn’t have been vaccinated are now keeping others safe from the virus.
“The more people who are vaccinated, the more it’s difficult for H1N1 to spread,” he said following a speech to a Calgary business audience.
“So I’m not going to stand back and say, ‘Look, I’m sorry we vaccinated 370,000 people.’ I think that’s a good achievement.”
The government has faced heated criticism over its handling of the vaccination program, which initially allowed anyone to get an H1N1 shot rather than reserving the earliest vaccinations for high-risk groups.
Then health officials announced over the weekend they were suspending clinics and would reopen them only for people at higher risk for complications from the flu.
Duckett said there were several reasons the government at first decided to open the vaccine to everyone.
There were concerns over how to identify people who may have a chronic disease that puts them at risk, but have no visible signs.
“How would you assess people who didn’t come with evidence that they had a chronic condition? How do you tell whether someone has a chronic condition in the open air, with no privacy, at the start of a huge lineup?”
A lack of screening would also make the lines move more quickly, and would avoid “line rage” against health-care workers from people who accompanied a high-risk friend or family member but were then denied the vaccine themselves.
“We could not accept that risk,” he said. “We had two serious security events last week and by Saturday the situation, as you know, was extremely tense.”
However, Duckett would not give any information on the alleged security events.
Lines have stretched for as long as six hours at clinics in Calgary and Edmonton, with some clinics closing their doors early as demand became overwhelming.
Duckett said the government has faced two unforeseen challenges that have prompted the changes.
Polling before the clinics opened suggested that between 40 and 50 per cent of Canadians planned to get the vaccine, but the same question over the weekend suggested 80 per cent were considering it.
The supply of vaccine has also dwindled this week. Due to a change in the production schedule for the vaccine to help make special doses for pregnant women, Alberta will receive 81,000 doses of the vaccine this week as opposed to the 220,000 initially promised.
Duckett said the province currently has 190,000 doses ready for high-risk groups and is currently figuring out how to deliver them. An announcement is expected Tuesday on how the program will move forward.
Questions being considered include which groups will get the highest priority and how to protect people’s privacy while still screening.
“You might ask people to come along with the medicines or the prescriptions that they’ve got and so on. So we do need to be really strict now because we have a limited vaccine.”
The province will also bump up security as the new program gets underway in case some people are upset about the new rules, he said.