While Albertans were waiting in long lines, and vaccination clinics were being shuttered as a drug shortage hit during the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic, a handful of nurses in Edmonton took matters into their own hands.
An inquiry into queue jumping was told on Thursday that public health nurses used their lunch breaks to covertly immunize their family members, bypassing thousands of people waiting up to six hours for their vaccinations at public clinics. It was also told that other nurses either reopened a closed clinic where stored vaccine was about to expire, or ferried shots home to inoculate friends, relatives and acquaintances.
"We were in a crisis," Susan Smith, an Edmonton nurse who secretly vaccinated 15 people after-hours, told the inquiry. "We were in an emergency situation and we had a very limited resource that we did not want to waste. My feeling was, not to waste the vaccine was more important than anything, really. It concerned me gravely that we may be wasting vaccine that people could use."
The revelations shine a light on one of the most trying episodes in the history of Alberta Health Services. The much maligned superboard, then newly created, which took over from regional administrators, was under fire for seemingly allowing the Calgary Flames hockey team and people connected to it receive H1N1 vaccinations at a private clinic.
Panic was sweeping the country in the last week of October, 2009, as people clamoured for the vaccine, leading to chaotic public clinics and the heightened demand that contributed to a widespread drug shortage. People were turned away and clinics were suddenly shut, including those in Edmonton, on Oct. 31 as officials waited for more supplies.
Ms. Smith told the inquiry that she vaccinated eight children and seven adults at the closed Bonnie Doon clinic in Edmonton on Nov. 1, 2009, because vaccine that had already been mixed had only a 24-hour shelf life. She didn't tell anybody what she was doing, but felt she had implicit authorization.
"Because you don't waste vaccine," she said, "You don't waste a precious resource. You don't waste public money."
John Vertes, a retired judge who is heading the inquiry, asked why clinics weren't kept open until the vaccine ran out.
Christine Westerlund, who was a regional manager with AHS during the flu outbreak, explained that the lines were too chaotic and there were safety concerns for staff. She suggested that inviting people to come back after so many were turned away could have caused a riot.
"It would have actually caused more panic," she said.
Judy Brosseau, who was a clinic manager for AHS, said Edmonton's Northgate Centre clinic had a lineup 3,000 to 4,000 people long, and when it closed on Oct. 31 with no reopening date set, there were 86 doses left unused.
"That really troubled me because they would all be discarded," she said.
She brought a vial home and administered it to her daughter's friends.
"We did not want to waste vaccine," Ms. Brosseau said, "People were sick and some people were dying from H1N1."
Seventy-one Albertans with H1N1 eventually died.
Ms. Brosseau said she had previously met a nurse in the hallway who was administering vaccine to family members on her own time. She didn't think that, or what she was doing, posed a problem.
"There was no written policy of whether staff could or couldn't do this," she said.
Linda Duffley, a director of public health programs with AHS, said a memo was issued to make it clear that "under no circumstances in any way" were nurses to take the vaccine home or administer doses after-hours.
With that memo, the inquiry was told, the practices ceased.