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Alberta Health Official Fired Over Calgary Flames Getting Special Flu Vaccine

Alberta’s health board sacked one staffer Wednesday and said more punishment may be on the way for those who let Calgary Flames players, management and family members jump the H1N1 vaccine queue.

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

“The decision to allow preferential access to the Flames and their families was a serious error in judgment.”

Hughes said the “most senior staff member involved” was dismissed, but didn’t name the person or detail how the Flames were able to avoid long lineups last week and get the vaccination at a separate spot.

The story became public Tuesday, launching a firestorm of criticism toward the Flames and reigniting anger toward Premier Ed Stelmach’s government for a vaccination rollout that became so overwhelmed officials shut it down Saturday to reorganize.

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

“Nobody feels good about it,” said Liepert. “We wanted to make sure that Alberta Health Services got to the bottom of it. They did, and they did very quickly. I’m sure if they could rewind the clock that all of them would think differently.”

The clinics were overwhelmed when the government urged all Albertans – not just those at high risk, such as young children and pregnant mothers – to get vaccinated.

The clinics are set to re-open Thursday and will only give shots to children between six months and under five years of age, along with pregnant mothers.

Dr. Andre Corriveau, chief medical officer of health, said the province is getting 275,000 doses of vaccine this week, which will have to hold until another shipment next week.

“We are managing with a very tight supply,” said Corriveau.

Both he and Gerry Predy, the senior medical officer of health, said when they get a better idea next week on how much vaccine is coming, they can decide whether to expand the shots to other high-risk groups.

“We will be running these clinics as long as we need to just for these groups to get as many of them done before we move onto the next phase,” said Predy.

Ken King, president of the Flames, said Tuesday the players and their families received their shots on Friday at a private location.

He said they believed they had gone through proper channels at Alberta Health Services, the agency that administers health services for the province.

Hughes said Wednesday that was correct: “Flames management made a decision based on information and a process that they believed was approved by AHS (Alberta Health Services).”

King said they felt the shots were a priority for the players because of their extensive cross-border travel and the close-contact physical nature of their sport.

He also said they didn’t want to cause a commotion by having the players stand in line at a public clinic. He didn’t say why that rationale would apply to Flames management and the families of the players.

The issue raised a larger issue across Canada Wednesday about the nature of celebrity athletes.

Other sports teams, including Edmonton Oilers, Edmonton Eskimos of the CFL and Toronto Raptors of the NBA, have said they did not seek or get preferential H1N1 vaccines for their players.

The Flames players, currently on a road trip in the U.S., had mixed reactions. 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.

“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