CALGARY - Premier Ed Stelmach said today H1N1 flu shot lineups have been longer in Alberta because the province decided to make the vaccine available to all residents off the bat, not just to high-risk groups.
“This is a serious matter. We’re doing the best we can, right across Canada,” Stelmach said. “Overall people are pleased that we do have the vaccine and we’re offering it to all Albertans.”
Stelmach noted vaccine supply is an issue, limiting the number of clinics in the first week of the immunization campaign.
“We’re getting as much of the vaccine as possible,” the premier said.
When asked how Alberta is going to handle the worst-case H1N1 scenario, Stelmach responded the province is focused on vaccination and on encouraging people to wash their hands and work with their family doctors.
According to Alberta Health Services’ latest H1N1 pandemic response plan, the new strain of influenza could affect a quarter of the population —about 875,000 Albertans —during the second wave this fall and winter.
This worst-case scenario could result in the hospitalization of between 3,800 and 11,400 patients, of whom 15 to 25 per cent are expected to need intensive care.
The health board’s pandemic plan also suggests H1N1 could contribute to between 130 and 400 deaths in Alberta, compared with roughly 17 deaths annually due to seasonal influenza. The province has so far recorded 12 deaths linked to H1N1, three of them since Friday.
Opposition parties have raised questions about whether Alberta’s health system can cope with the worst-case scenario.
“Alberta’s major hospitals and intensive care units are routinely at 100 per cent capacity,” Liberal Leader David Swann said Wednesday.
NDP Leader Brian Mason contended: “Failure to ensure appropriate staffing levels to accommodate for a public health outbreak has left the system unable to cope. It creates serious doubts about Alberta’s capacity to cope with any health emergency.”
But Health Minister Ron Liepert said the medical system is weathering the added strain of H1N1.
“Clearly across the province we are having obvious signs that the number of cases of H1N1 is increasing. That’s not surprising. We expected that,” he said Wednesday.
“The health care system is coping the best that it can and I believe that anyone who needs health care is receiving it.”
Alberta Health Services said city emergency rooms have been so busy, medical staff have been moved from other areas of the hospital to help.
The health superboard also said its HealthLink telephone hotline has been "very busy" fielding calls from people concerned about H1N1.
At Alberta Children's Hospital on Wednesday, worried parents with sick children crowded the ER, many wearing surgical masks as they waited to see a physician.
Health officials did not have statistics on average wait times, but families said they were waiting at least three hours to see a doctor in the morning.
Dozens of people filled the emergency waiting room at Peter Lougheed Hospital over the dinner hour, many coughing under their surgical masks.
One of those was Jessika Alexander, 20, who said she fell ill Tuesday night.
"I was lying in bed and all of a sudden I started coughing and felt pain all over, from my head down to my toes.
"I've never felt this kind of pain and soreness in all my life. I don't know if I have the swine flu, but whatever this is, it's awful," said Alexander.
Health officials say the medical system is coping so far.
"What we're seeing now compared to the summer is greatly increased influenza activity in the community," said Dr. Judy MacDonald, deputy medical officer of health for the superboard.
"We were anticipating this; we heard about the waves of pandemic, and this is indeed the second wave," said MacDonald.
Alberta Health Minister Ron Liepert said Wednesday that emergency wards and medical clinics in the rest of the province are also experiencing an increase in patients and inquiries connected to H1N1 concerns.
The influx is causing some strain on the health system, which the province is looking to address.
"Over the couple of days I hope that we will be in a position to implement some strategy that will help alleviate that," Liepert said at the legislature.
News of the increase in cases comes on the first week of Alberta's massive campaign to vaccinate residents against H1N1, the virus also known as swine flu that first emerged in Mexico during the spring and has since spread around the world.
Alberta Health Services said the number of suspected H1N1 cases in schools also appears to be growing this week, with dozens of Calgary schools reporting absentee rates of higher than 10 per cent.
"We have had in place for many, many years the relationship with schools to contact public health when their absenteeism rate goes above 10 per cent," said the superboard's MacDonald.
"What we're seeing now, I've never seen before."
But Education Minister Dave Hancock urged calm. "The key here is not to panic," he added.
While H1N1 has mostly caused mild disease, officials say some patients are being hospitalized and, in rare cases, are being admitted to intensive care units.
In total, nearly 200 Albertans with H1N1 have been admitted to hospital since the new strain of influenza first began spreading in the spring.
But physicians say only those who need medical attention should visit emergency rooms and that healthy people with mild symptoms can recover at home.
MacDonald said people who are having trouble breathing, experiencing chest pain or are running a fever for more than four days should see a physician.
She added that patients should look at Alberta Health Services'website to learn how to manage mild illness at home before calling HealthLink.
At Alberta Children's Hospital Wednesday, several parents said they came to emergency because their child had flu-like symptoms and they were worried after a healthy Toronto boy--Evan Frustaglio-- died from H1N1 this week.
"The story about the 13-year-old in Ontario has panicked parents," said Bert Hamilton, whose nine-year-old son was waiting in emergency at Alberta Children's Hospital.
Premier Ed Stelmach also said two recent H1N1-related deaths--Frustaglio and another young Canadian --are likely weighing heavily on the minds of many Albertans.
He encouraged people who aren't
feeling well and who are unsure of what's wrong to phone HealthLink and speak to nurses or touch base with their family doctor.
"We will work through it," the premier told reporters in Calgary.
Rahim Mohammed said he went to his neighbourhood medical clinic before visiting the emergency room at Peter Lougheed.
"My doctor took one look at me and gave me a letter that said to get to emergency right away," said Mohammed, 30.
He was lying in a waiting room chair, wrapped in a hospital sheet, wearing a tuque and shivering.
He said he was fine one day and violently ill by Wednesday.
"At first I thought it was a cold and now I feel like I am dying, like it's killing me."
As hospitals deal with an increase in patients, the provincial campaign to immunize Albertans against H1N1 administered more than 100,000 shots in its first two days.
In Calgary alone, health officials say they've vaccinated 28,000 residents of the city and surrounding rural areas, plus some 9,000 health workers.
Liepert, who quietly toured Edmonton clinics and emergency rooms on Wednesday, said in the legislature the vaccination program is an "incredible success" because of the high turnout.
The program has been heavily criticized for long lineups and only a handful of clinics in Calgary and Edmonton to serve the province's two largest cities.
In Calgary, Alberta Health Services added a fifth clinic at the University of Calgary's Olympic Oval to serve people who have trouble standing in line, including the elderly and pregnant women. Still, patients who went to the clinic Wednesday faced multi-hour waits.
"It was the largest line ever," said Andrea Naderi, who waited about three hours with her two children. "It's great that it is inside, but it could have been run better."
By mid-morning, the lineup at the clinic stretched through the university's kinesiology complex and several people chose not to wait.
"We talked to lots of families that are turning back and that is sad," said Gerry Webster, 73, who left after estimating the wait could have been about seven hours.
Health officials said they are doing their best to accommodate the large crowds, but they do not have any plans at this time to add another Calgary clinic.
Stelmach said many of the waits are due to the fact that the province is giving all Albertans first crack at the shot, not just high-risk groups. He noted in other provinces where long lines haven't been an issue that the vaccine is only to be offered to high-risk groups for now, while the general population must wait.
"We'll be doing whatever we can to vaccinate the whole population," the premier said.
To view this site, you need to have Flash Player 8.0 or later installed. Click here to get the latest Flash player.