EDMONTON - Premier Ed Stelmach expressed confidence in his health minister and the province's top doctor Monday as political opponents-- and many ordinary Albertans --continued to denounce the Tory government's handling of the H1N1 pandemic.
Under fire in the legislature, Stelmach rebuffed the Liberals' demand that he fire Health Minister Ron Liepert after immunization clinics were abruptly halted Saturday amid rising fears of a national vaccine shortage.
"I have every confidence in my minister. I also have confidence in our medical officer of health," the premier told the legislature after meeting with the pair and other government officials earlier Monday, before the issue sparked a rare emergency debate in the legislature.
Albertans will learn today when injections to protect against the new influenza strain will resume. Unlike the first week, in which anyone in the province was eligible to receive the vaccine, the provincial government and its medical board plans to switch tacks and strictly target people most vulnerable of becoming gravely ill, including pregnant women and children aged six months to five years.
Indeed, the province's own H1N1 pandemic plan recommends that people most at risk be immunized first.
Opposition parties say many Albertans susceptible to the H1N1 virus were shut out of the province's first week of immunization because massive, hours-long lineups at many clinics included people facing little danger of getting seriously ill.
"This government has created fear, confused people with contradictory messages, and did not ensure the high-risk populations were vaccinated first," NDP Leader Brian Mason charged.
In questioning why the province didn't follow its own H1N1 pandemic plan, Liberal Leader David Swann said political interference might be at play.
"You always address the high-risk people first and the essential services people. That's what keeps the system going," said Swann, a former medical officer of health in southern Alberta.
"I have to believe that there's some political interference in this. This is a huge departure from public health practice."
Liepert, however, said the government is heeding the advice of its medical experts.
"There's no mixed messages coming from us," he said, noting the province vaccinated about 400,000 people last week.
"That's over 10 per cent of Albertans and, no matter what anyone says, that's an amazing accomplishment."
Both Liepert and the province's top physician, Dr. Andre Corriveau, suggested the province's immunization plan was never designed to target the entire population off the bat.
"We never opened it up to everyone, but we had said right from the beginning, and I think all provinces were pretty much doing the same, is that we wouldn't turn people away," said Corriveau, who has been Alberta's chief medical officer of health since March.
Their message Monday contradicted statements made last week. The premier himself noted Thursday: "Overall people are pleased that we do have the vaccine and we're offering it to all Albertans."
Corriveau didn't know what percentage of high-risk people--which include pregnant women, children aged six months to five years, and people under 65 with chronic health conditions--have been vaccinated.
To help ease the strain on hospital emergency wards, the province has set up several H1N1 assessment clinics.
Calgarians waited between two and three hours Monday to get checked out at the city's lone site at the former children's hospital on Richmond Road S.W. Upon arrival, patients were given masks and hand sanitizer before being asked to wait to see a nurse or doctor.
Dr. Linda Slocombe, president of the Calgary and Area Physicians' Association, said a city of this size should have more centres than the five that were open last week. She added the province could also have made the vaccine available at doctors'offices and maternity clinics in an effort to target groups at high risk of developing serious disease.
"If you have a lot of high-risk people going to certain places, it would make sense to have the vaccine available at those places," Slocombe said.
But Alberta Health Services boss Stephen Duckett defended the rollout of the program during a speech in Calgary on Monday. He said the medical board acted quickly and responsibly based on the best information available.
He noted federal officials told Alberta it would have 220,000 vaccine doses a week, ramping up to 300,000 doses a week by the end of the month. This week, however, Alberta is only expected to receive 81,000 doses, with no information on how much vaccine will be available next week.
"We encouraged the high-risk people (to come forward), but lots of other people turned up," said Duckett, chief executive of Alberta Health Services. "We had to weigh the issue of, do we turn people away or do we take all comers?"