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The WRHA: a study in mass communications

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As a further follow-up to yesterday's high drama at the flu vaccination clinic, I’ve done some additional thinking about what happened and why. One loyal reader who commented on my blogs yesterday suggested that I get over the minor inconvenience of a three-hour delay in getting H1N1 vaccine for my children and get on with my life. Unfortunately, this comment is from someone who didn’t read my blog all the way to the end.

This is NOT a story about a few lost hours at the clinic. I agree with the reader that it was a minor inconvenience. The big issue here is why the WRHA didn’t get information out to the public in a more timely fashion and why their spokespeople are taking liberties with the truth of what actually happened.

In a well-written story in the Free Press today, RHA officials explain that the shortage of adjuvanted vaccine, which is the only vaccine administered to children under 10 and seniors over 64, occurred when an expected shipment did not arrive on Sunday night. Later in the same story, however, a RHA spokeswoman indicated that the shortage was only discovered 45 minutes before the clinics were scheduled to open at 9:30 AM. At that point, it was too late to inform the public there was no vaccine for the very young or the very old.

Let’s play a little game I like to call spot the fallacy.

If the shipment did not arrive Sunday night, then someone with the province knew there was a problem about 12 hours before the clinics opened. This suggests a number of possible scenarios. First, that the staff responsible for documenting incoming shipments didn’t do their jobs and warn the WRHA. Or, that the RHA was told but communications staff do not work Sunday nights or early Monday mornings. Or that the RHA decided it was better not to tell anyone because it doesn’t want to discourage people from going to the clinics for any reason.

There was no information on the WRHA website about a shortage on either Sunday or Monday, and no press release was issued Sunday night or Monday morning. Even if you accept the assertion that the shortage was detected at about 8:45 AM, no effort was made to contact newspapers or radio stations on Monday morning to caution the public about bringing kids to the clinics.

In fact, the first acknowledgement of the problem was about 11:30 AM – the same time the adjuvanted vaccine was making its way to the vaccine clinics. It seems quite implausible that the RHA did not know about the shortage until Monday morning. Even so, there is no explanation for why no effort was made to publicize this problem ASAP. And for an organization that already has a reputation for taking liberties with the facts, that’s a real concern.

You will remember that in dealing with the fallout from the death of Brian Sinclair, the homeless and legless man who died in the HSC emergency room after going unattended for more than 30 hours, WRHA officials indicated that he had never presented himself to the triage desk, and thus was not on the ER radar screen. Later, it was learned he did present to the triage desk, but was diverted by ER staff for reasons that are still unclear. The gap between those two versions has caused no end of trouble for the WRHA, creating the impression that it is simply disingenuous when confronted with a problem.

That is not to say it happens every time. The WRHA seemed to be very up front about the number of doses that were spoiled during the first few weeks of flu clinics. This is a national story, and the RHA seemed to do a good job at accounting for every spoiled dose, and making a convincing argument that some spoilage is inevitable. As a result, that story is likely dead and done. No lingering hangover to deal with.

Why not take the same approach with Monday’s shortage? Perhaps someone in Manitoba Health screwed up here, and perhaps the RHA elected to spare that person some grief by focusing on the delayed shipment and not the inexplicable delay in alerting the public. However, if the RHA cannot be completely frank about a minor inconvenience, we surely have reason to be concerned about any statement it makes about a more serious problem.

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About Dan Lett

Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school.

Despite the fact that he’s originally from Toronto and has a fatal attraction to the Maple Leafs, Winnipeggers let him stay.

In the following years, he has worked at bureaus covering every level of government – from city hall to the national bureau in Ottawa.

He has had bricks thrown at him in riots following the 1995 Quebec referendum, wrote stories that helped in part to free three wrongly convicted men, met Fidel Castro, interviewed three Philippine presidents, crossed several borders in Africa illegally, chased Somali pirates in a Canadian warship and had several guns pointed at him.

In other words, he’s had every experience a journalist could even hope for. He has also been fortunate enough to be a two-time nominee for a National Newspaper Award, winning in 2003 for investigations.

Other awards include the B’Nai Brith National Human Rights Media Award and nominee for the Michener Award for Meritorious Public Service in Journalism.

Now firmly rooted in Winnipeg, Dan visits Toronto often but no longer pines to live there.


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