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Vaccination priority list still in flux

Critics warn latest revision will cause confusion

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Flip-flopping flu plans have left some Winnipeggers confused over whether they can get the H1N1 vaccine.

Flu clinics reopened Wednesday after a day-long hiatus when clinics were shut due to a shortage of vaccine doses.

Health officials reopened the clinics after they realized they had enough doses to continue vaccinating people at risk of falling severely ill from H1N1.

But when the clinics opened their doors Wednesday morning, they weren't hit by the usual mad rush of people. Lineups were short and no one had camped for hours before the clinics opened to try to be at the head of the line.

The poor turnout prompted health officials to revise their priority list for the third time in a week -- a move that critics suspect will leave Winnipeggers flummoxed about whether or not they're eligible.

"It's a very mixed message," said Alan Katz, a researcher for the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy. "I don't think the public understands it. I think they haven't done a great job of explaining themselves."

The city's initial vaccination plans were hampered last week when the federal government warned Manitoba Health it would not receive nearly as many vaccine doses as provincial planners had counted on. The fallout forced Winnipeg health officials to revise their initial priority list and ration their dwindling vaccine stock by turning away patients not considered at highest risk.

Since then, who's in and who's out has changed as vaccine doses become available.

"It probably has been a little bit confusing for everybody," said Winnipeg Regional Health Authority medical officer Dr. Sande Harlos.

"We started out with a priority list, we had to narrow that priority list, and now we've gone back to the original priority list."

That list includes: people under 65 with a chronic medical condition or other risk factor including obesity and alcoholism, anyone with a weakened immune system or those who live with and care for them, disadvantaged individuals, people who live in remote or isolated areas, single parents, pregnant women and people who live with or care for infants under six months.

Health Minister Theresa Oswald said health officials restricted vaccinations earlier in the week to those most at risk because of dwindling supply, but then quickly loosened those restrictions Wednesday when officials noticed lineups were not as long as last week.

She said pandemic plans are drafted to be flexible.

"What I have said to my department is to step back and remember the goal," Oswald said. "The goal is to vaccinate as quickly as possible the most people in the priority group that we can based on the supply of vaccine that we have."

"No question that having a changing kind of protocol is not great for the public," the minister said.

"But if we were, for the sake of not confusing people, to keep that priority list narrow, and therefore not having as many people flowing through, we would be missing the goal."

Progressive Conservative Leader Hugh McFadyen said the confusion caused by changing rules shows the province is making up its pandemic plan on the fly.

"It suggests the situation is completely chaotic," he said.

He said Premier Greg Selinger should step in and take a more active role in the flu fight to restore public confidence.

"I think people would give him credit if he showed that kind of leadership," McFadyen said.



Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 5, 2009 A6

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