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Alberta Health apologizes, fires official over Flames' flu shots

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The Canadian Press
11/4/2009 8:36:33 PM
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EDMONTON -- A health employee who let the Calgary Flames jump the swine flu shot queue was sacked Wednesday as the controversy over preferential treatment to celebrity athletes spread to the Flames' farm team and beyond, including members of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

"Like most Albertans, I am deeply offended that this circumstance has occurred," Ken Hughes, chairman of Alberta Health Services, said in a news release.

"(It) was a serious error in judgment."

Hughes did not release the employee's name or discuss the circumstances that led to the firing, but said "an investigation is continuing and may result in further disciplinary action."

Alberta Health Minister Ron Liepert said the firing sends the message that favouritism will not be tolerated.

"Nobody feels good about it," said Liepert. "I'm sure if they could rewind the clock that all of them would think differently."

Ken King, the Flames' team president, declined an interview with The Canadian Press on Wednesday.

But he told open-line radio show host Charles Adler that the pink-slipped employee "paid a huge penalty" for allowing Flames players, management and family members to get the vaccine last Friday.

King said he plans to reach out and help him or her find work.

"I don't know the name of that person, but I'm going to find out, and I'm going to speak with them, because I think that they thought they were doing a good thing for us," he said.

The Flames faced even more hot water Wednesday when it was revealed the team's British Columbia-based top-tier farm team -- the Abbotsford Heat of the American Hockey League -- had recently vaccinated most of its players.

In a news release, team president Tom Mauthe said the shots were given after most of the players fell ill on a recent road trip. They went to a public clinic for shots, he said.

"At no time did anyone from the Abbotsford Heat receive preferential treatment nor did they jump a queue," said Mauthe.

But B.C.'s medical health officer, Dr. Perry Kendall, said rules were broken.

Provincial guidelines clearly state the vaccine is to be offered first to high-risk groups including people under 65 with a chronic condition, children between six months and five years and pregnant women, he said.

"There has been no authorization given by me or any of British Columbia's medical officers or health authorities for any sports team to receive early access to the H1N1 vaccine," Kendall said.

"That was clearly outside the province's guidelines for the publicly funded vaccine program."

In New Brunswick, Dr. Eilish Cleary, the chief medical officer of health, was surprised to learn the Moncton Wildcats of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League had received their shots last week despite a national shortage of the vaccine.

"It is unfortunate to see a situation where hockey players as a member of a team might have been vaccinated before other people who were in a prioritY group," Cleary told a news conference.

"We're working to make sure that does not happen again."

New Brunswick health officials have said the clinics were intended for priority groups such as health-care workers, children, aboriginals and people with chronic illnesses.

Wildcats general manager Bill Schurman said his team wasn't given any preferential treatment and that the players received their shots in a public clinic before the priority order was issued.

League spokesman Karl Jahnke said the Acadie-Bathurst Titans had also received their swine flu shots.

In Toronto, the Globe and Mail reported on its website Wednesday night that some players and staff members of the NHL's Maple Leafs had been vaccinated.

The Maple Leafs insisted "no preferential treatment was requested nor received."

The team refused to say how many players got the shot, and whether there were underlying health complications.

"While all professional athletes are considered high risk to exposure and transmission of the flu due to excessive contact with other players, heavy travel requirements and public exposure, only certain players and staff have received the H1N1 vaccine," a Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment statement said.

But Canada's chief public health officer refuted that, saying there's a difference between being at high risk of getting the flu, and of it causing serious illness or death.

"We have focused the priorities of who is to be immunized first based on who is at greatest risk of severe disease and dying, not on who is more likely to be exposed," Dr. David Butler-Jones wrote in an email to the Globe.

The newspaper also reported that some members of the NBA's Toronto Raptors, another team owned by Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, received the shot.

Ontario health officials have said they weren't aware of any professional athletes jumping the queue for the flu shot.

Only those who belong in one of the province's priority groups will be able to get the vaccine ahead of everyone else, Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews said prior to the Globe report.

"If professional athletes are pregnant, if they have underlying health conditions, if they are children between the ages of six months to under five, if they fall into one of the high-priority groups, they will get vaccinated," she said.

"If they do not -- and I suspect the vast majority do not -- they will have to wait just like everyone else."

Among other pro sports teams, the Edmonton Oilers and Edmonton Eskimos of the CFL said they did not seek or get preferential H1N1 vaccines for their players.

In Alberta, the firing was the latest chapter in what has become a nightmare rollout of the H1N1 vaccine by the Tory government.

Premier Ed Stlemach's government initially urged all Albertans -- not just those in high-risk groups like young children and pregnant mothers -- to get the vaccination. But when clinics were overwhelmed last week by long lineups and with vaccine dwindling, the province shut down all clinics Saturday.

They are set to re-open Thursday but will inoculate only children aged six months to under five years, along with pregnant mothers.

The Flames players, currently on a road trip in the U.S., had mixed reactions. Their next home game is Saturday night versus the New York Rangers.

Captain Jarome Iginla said Tuesday he understood why Albertans would be angry, while defenceman Robyn Regehr said when they got the needles, they didn't know the vaccine was in short supply.

Fans seemed less forgiving.

A Facebook group formed Wednesday calling on fans to boycott the Flames over the controversy.

"I'd take it personally if it's my son or daughter that died of H1N1 because some elitist scumbag butted in line," said an emailer named Jack on the CBC.ca website.

"Rolling out office flu shots is a good thing, but only offering them to famous millionaires and their families is not," added another.

A third said the move smacks of politics for a government that has been hammered in the opinion polls lately for mismanaging the economy and for delivering a multibillion-dollar deficit budget.

"I smell a rat ... or scapegoat."

-- With files from Jim Macdonald, Shannon Montgomery, Camille Bains, Kevin Bissett

Jay Bouwmeester and Craig Conroy  (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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