Stelmach accused of misleading Albertans by downplaying flu outbreak

EDMONTON — Both Premier Ed Stelmach and Health Minister Ron Liepert are downplaying their own government’s health report that predicts up to 400 swine flu deaths in Alberta.

EDMONTON — Both Premier Ed Stelmach and Health Minister Ron Liepert are downplaying their own government’s health report that predicts up to 400 swine flu deaths in Alberta.

The premier said there are several mitigating factors that could reduce the number of Albertans who suffer the worst effects of the swine flu.

“By vaccinating people, asking people to wash their hands and be careful,” Stelmach told reporters Thursday.

Liepert concedes he hasn’t read the entire 40-page Alberta Health Services report that predicts 875,000 Albertans will become infected with H1N1 this fall and winter, at least 3,800 will end up in hospital, and 130 to 400 will die.

But the health minister said he believes these numbers are high because the assumptions used in the report include a low number of people being vaccinated.

“We’ve have had 12 deaths in Alberta,” said Liepert. “Let’s not get all bent out of shape worrying about somebody who put some numbers on a web site.”

“The system is under stress, I won’t deny that, but it’s coping very well.”

Liberal Opposition Leader David Swann says Stelmach and Liepert are ignoring the findings of their own health agency.

“They’re misleading all of us by dismissing those numbers, which are their own figures,” Swann, a former public health officer, said Thursday on his way into the legislature.

The premier also suggested in the legislature Thursday that Alberta is not experiencing a swine flu pandemic, despite the World Health Organization saying in June a global pandemic is underway.

“We will do whatever we can to prevent a pandemic in this province,” Stelmach told the assembly.

Stelmach also said the huge lineups at flu vaccination centres are due to the province’s decision to allow all Albertans to get their shots at once.

Other provinces are using a different strategy, giving priority to people in high-risk categories for the first round of vaccinations, he said.

“Overall, people are pleased that we do have the vaccine and we’re offering it to all Albertans,” said the premier. “We’re getting as much of the vaccine as possible.”

Alberta was given 600,000 doses of H1N1 vaccine, but these are quickly being used up at the rate of 50,000 per day, said Liepert.

“We have no guarantee that there will additional vaccine coming next week,” said the minister.

There’s an agreement between the provinces to help each other with vaccine and supplies if one region experiences a severe outbreak of swine flu, Liepert added.

“If it becomes more of a public emergency or a crisis situation, vaccine could be diverted to those communities,” he said. “And that’s the right thing to do.”

Alberta schools have been reporting absentee rates of between 10 and 30 per cent and clinics, hospitals and doctors offices are crammed with people.

However, Liepert said he doesn’t see Alberta as having an extraordinary number of swine flu cases compared to other provinces.

“I couldn’t stand here and say that we had a public health emergency today,” said Liepert.

Swann disagrees, saying there’s no question that Alberta is being swamped with H1N1 cases.

“This government is negligent in its delivery of this program,” Swann said.

“This government calls me a fear-monger, but questions do not create fear. Lack of answers, lack of action, creates fear in the population.”

Liepert toured the University Hospital in Edmonton Wednesday and said he saw a lot of flu patients waiting to see a doctor. But he said there wasn’t time to tour other hospitals or vaccination clinics.