Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Feds vow to start talking

Officials will be available to publicly discuss flu pandemic

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OTTAWA -- Manitoba Health Minister Theresa Oswald said Friday she has received assurances that federal officials will become more available to communicate with Manitobans about pandemic flu issues.

Oswald spoke with Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq by phone Friday -- a day after Oswald criticized the federal government for poor communication and for refusing help from Manitoba in addressing the H1N1 flu outbreak.

Oswald said Thursday the province had offered 13 times to help the federal government since May 4 and was consistently told it wasn't needed until Wednesday, when the outbreak of the illness among St. Theresa Point residents became apparent.

More than 20 people from the remote community, 470 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, have been hospitalized in Winnipeg with influenza. Three have been confirmed as having H1N1 influenza. Several hundred more in the community who are showing respiratory symptoms have registered with the nursing station.

Oswald said one of her biggest frustrations was Ottawa's refusal to let local federal health officials participate in news conferences to give information about what was happening.

Manitoba officials do not feel comfortable providing information specific to reserves, said Oswald, but requests to have the federal officials on the ground attend provincial news conferences were consistently denied, she said.

Aglukkaq told Oswald Friday that would no longer happen.

"She agreed we have to do more joint communications," Oswald said. "I am happy with that."

Oswald said she didn't mean to start a "fist fight" with Aglukkaq and said her comments Thursday were not meant to imply the federal health officials in Manitoba were doing a poor job.

"The team on the ground is doing a good job," she said.

On Friday morning, Aglukkaq said she had spoken to Oswald several times since H1N1 arose in late April and that Oswald had never offered any help.

The province quickly countered, saying it wasn't help offered on the ministerial level but by officials on the ground, as established crisis-response procedures dictate.

Aglukkaq's spokeswoman confirmed Friday afternoon the two ministers spoke by phone.

"They are working towards the same goal," she said.

"Our minister is in weekly touch with all of her provincial and territorial counterparts. Departmental officials are in daily touch with the provinces."

Manitoba has jurisdiction for public health for everyone except those living on First Nations communities, which fall under Ottawa's purview.

There are well-established pandemic plans for provinces but extending those plans to First Nations appears to be lagging behind.

In 2005, the Public Health Agency of Canada identified as a problem the lack of agreements between Health Canada and the provinces about who will do what on reserves during a public health crisis.

Four years later those agreements are still being worked on, and while all First Nations are meant to have their own pandemic flu plans, not all of them do.

The Island Lake Tribal Council, of which St. Theresa Point is a member, was in the midst of retooling its plan when this outbreak hit.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 6, 2009 A4

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