When the first wave of the pandemic flu hit northern First Nations hard, air ambulance nurses and pilots took critically ill residents to intensive care units in Winnipeg.
Now that the second wave of H1N1 has arrived, air ambulance staff at private firms are scrambling to get the vaccine and protect themselves and their patients.
"It's been frustrating and demoralizing," said Penny Triggs, vice-president of air medical operations at Keewatin Air and a nurse who medevacs patients from fly-in communities.
"We all assumed nurses and pilots would get it," she said Thursday after leaving work to wait in line for the vaccine. "If the pilots get it (the flu), we don't fly." During the first H1N1 surge, Keewatin Air moved at least six critically ill flu patients on life-support to Winnipeg who ended up on ventilators.
"We're in an airplane sitting 18 inches from the person. There's not a lot of space between you and the individuals." Staff wear protective gear and have already moved some people suspected of being part of the second wave of H1N1 to Winnipeg, she said.
As part of a lifeline to the north, air ambulance staff expected to have quicker access to the vaccine and not have to wait in line hoping the clinics didn't run out.
For three days in a row, she and air ambulance staff went to the nearest H1N1 vaccine clinic on Portage Avenue. On Monday, the clinic ran out of vaccine. Another day, the lines were too long. On Thursday afternoon, she and two other nurses were able to get the vaccine -- just in time to head up north.
She said there are close to 75 air ambulance pilots and nurses in the province.
"I think it was a planning error," Triggs said. "For most of the organizations, they have an affiliation. We're all privately run companies."
"We put in an order for vaccine a long time ago. When we called them (last) Friday, they said 'we're not allowed to give it to you guys.' "
Triggs said air ambulance staff in Churchill were able to get the H1N1 vaccine quickly because there weren't lineups. Farther north, the vaccine is even harder to get than it is in Winnipeg, though.
"Staff at Rankin Inlet (in Nunavut) have not been able to get it," Triggs said.
"The other worrisome thing is this is a vulnerable population... if we get sick and don't have any symptoms yet, we don't want to give it to anybody. We want to keep our service running," she said.
A spokeswoman for Manitoba Health said late Thursday afternoon the provincial government would look into the private air ambulance concerns.
"I know it's an enormous thing to plan for," Triggs said.
The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority has clinics for its own staff at most hospitals and 28 community offices around the city.
On Thursday, the WRHA reminded primary care doctors and their staff that they can get the H1N1 vaccine at WRHA staff clinics, which have a shorter wait time than the clinics open to the general public.
"That's the first I've heard of it," said Dr. Dan Gerber at the South Sherbrook Health Centre.
Dr. Wilhelm Grobler hadn't heard of it, either.
"I haven't had a shot and I don't see myself getting one," Grobler said Thursday. The family practice doctor said he's too busy because of H1N1 anxiety.
"The public is anxious. We are actually swamped, with 60 to 80 patients a day," he said. "We don't have time to leave the clinic to stand in line for four hours when we're working till seven or eight at night."
When one family doctor who Gerber knows asked for the vaccine to administer to other doctors so they wouldn't have to leave their patients, "The powers that be absolutely refused," Gerber said.
"Isn't there a nurse who could go around and give us our shot?" he asked. "Is the only resolution to close our clinics, stand in line, and it takes an hour or two to give us a shot given by student nurses?"
Manitoba College of Physicians and Surgeons registrar Dr. Bill Pope said the logistics would be "pretty difficult."
Tory health critic Myrna Driedger, who trained as a nurse, said it would have been possible to get the vaccine to the family practice clinics.
"That kind of planning could've been done before we reached this stage," she said.
18,000 -- approximate number of Manitobans vaccinated against the seasonal flu in six-week immunization programs in past years
17,000 -- approximate number of Manitoba vaccinated against the seasonal flu in a three-day blitz this fall
67,078 -- number of H1N1 flu shots administered in Manitoba as of Wednesday
10,000 -- approximate number of health-care workers in Manitoba who've been vaccinated
unknown -- number of people in high-risk groups who've been vaccinated
134,000 -- number of doses of H1N1 vaccine produced by GlaxoSmithKline and sent to Manitoba by Ottawa
72,000 -- number of doses sent by Ottawa this week
unknown -- number of doses to be sent next Wednesday
People who fall under these categories should get an H1N1 flu shot right away:
children aged six months to under five years old;
anyone of aboriginal ancestry (First Nations, Métis or Inuit);
disadvantaged individuals (for example, the homeless);
people living in remote or isolated areas;
people under 65 with a chronic medical condition or other risk including severe obesity, substance abuse or alcoholism.