Province calls for priority list to be respected
TORONTO - Ontario hospitals that are allowing their board members to jump the queue for the swine flu vaccine must stop the practice immediately, Health Minister Deb Matthews warned Friday.
Board members are not health-care workers and should not be given the shot unless they fall into one of the other five priority groups set out by the province, health officials added.
"It just isn't right that a six-year-old has to wait and someone else with better connections can go ahead," Matthews said.
"It's not OK. I have said it as strongly as I can and I will continue to say it: the priority groups must be respected."
Members of at least four hospital boards in Toronto have been offered the swine flu vaccine that's intended for priority groups only, and while one doctor said Friday he now regrets that decision, another said it's the right thing to do.
Board members at Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital got the H1N1 shot last week and the University Health Network is offering the vaccine to its board and executives, along with nurses, doctors, volunteers and other hospital workers.
Health-care workers are among the six groups that are considered to be a higher priority for getting the pandemic shot in Ontario, and some hospital officials argue that board members fall into that group.
Everyone who works at the Toronto General, Toronto Western and Princess Margaret hospitals is being offered the H1N1 shot because they're all needed in a time of crisis, said Dr. Bob Bell, president of the University Health Network.
"Our analysis of the situation at University Health Network is that every individual who works in the hospital is essential to the hospital's functioning," Bell said in an interview.
"And that includes our managers, our directors, our executives. Let's face it, we're making day-to-day decisions on how this hospital responds to this epidemic. Of all times, this is the time that hospital leadership is most necessary."
Others have held off. The Hospital for Sick Children has vaccinated 4,500 staff, including front-line health-care workers and other staff who work with patients, but has no plans to provide the shot to its board members, said hospital spokeswoman Matet Nebres.
Matthews and Premier Dalton McGuinty have both said they'll also wait their turn.
While health officials have urged people from the start to let the priority groups go first, they also said no one would be turned away. That changed as demand surged and Ontario's supplies dwindled, prompting the province to restrict the shot to priority groups only late last week.
Tempers began to flare in recent days after several pro athletes were accused of jumping the queue -- recriminations that have now spread to hospital officials and agencies that are supposed to enforce the rules.
"What we are seeing evokes scenes from the Titanic, the privileged pushing to the front and leaving vulnerable women and children to a chilling fate," said Sharleen Stewart of the Service Employees International Union, which represents some hospital workers.
The Mount Sinai board, which includes several high-profile business leaders and former politicians, got special treatment and its chairman Lawrence Bloomberg must resign, she added.
Mount Sinai's chief microbiologist Dr. Donald Low, who is also medical director of Ontario's public health labs, expressed regret Friday that he offered the board the flu shot at an Oct. 26 board meeting, the first day it became available in Toronto.
Sixty-five people, including doctors, staff and volunteers as well as board members, got the shot, and 15 of them would have been in the high-priority category, he said.
At the time, Toronto Public Health hadn't yet opened its public immunization clinics and was providing the shot only to city staff involved in health care.
The hospital had a large supply of the vaccine and no lineups at its clinic, Low said.
"In hindsight, it was the wrong thing to do," he said. "I mean, it was a mistake. You thought you were doing the best thing at the time, and then you find out you weren't."
Low couldn't confirm which board members received the shot or whether they were in a high-priority group.
The next day, news of the swine flu death of Toronto teen Evan Frustaglio caused a spike in vaccine demand and that sparked hours-long clinic lineups in Toronto and surrounding communities.
Low said he was unaware at the time that the province would be facing a shortage of the vaccine, which was announced later that week.
Matthews must seek disciplinary action against doctors who have inappropriately given out the vaccine to people who aren't on the priority list, said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.
"I believe that there is a bigger picture here," said Horwath.
"I believe we're only seeing the tip of the iceberg in terms of who it was that was able to jump the queue in this vaccination rollout, and again shows a complete lack of communication and planning by this government."
Matthews is already investigating whether several players and staff from the NHL's Toronto Maple Leafs and the NBA's Toronto Raptors jumped the queue in getting the H1N1 shot.
Two people have been fired in Alberta for helping set up a private clinic for Calgary Flames players and their families to get the H1N1 flu vaccine while thousands of Albertans waited in line.
Matthews didn't have any answers Friday, but the company that owns both the Leafs and Raptors said the players who got the shot fell into one of the priority groups.
"Our medical doctors strictly adhere to all provincial guidelines and regulations," said Rajani Kamath, a spokeswoman for Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment.
The minister was quick to fire back.
"Well, I'm sure that all pregnant players of the Raptors and the Maple Leafs have received their vaccinations, as have all under age five," Matthews said.
In addition to health-care workers, the other priority groups are pregnant women, children between six months and five years of age, people who care for infants and other people who can't get the vaccine, people under the age of 65 with chronic conditions and those living in remote communities.
Ontario is expected to get 770,000 doses of the H1N1 vaccine from Ottawa next week, but it's still unclear when it will arrive, said Dr. Arlene King, Ontario's chief medical officer of health.
The shipment includes 395,000 doses of the adjuvanted vaccine -- which contains an immune-boosting additive -- and 375,000 doses of unadjuvanted vaccine, which is preferred for pregnant women.
Ontario has been working with a limited supply of the vaccine and provincial health officials have been anxious for more doses to be delivered, warning that Ontario may run out of the regular vaccine by the end of the week. Some public clinics have already closed.
So far, the province has seen 37 swine-flu related deaths since April and 136 hospitalizations, up from 123 on Thursday. Sixty-four of those people are in intensive care, down from 65.