Inquiry told Calgary Flames feared they would be stampeded in flu shot lines

CALGARY - A concern that the Calgary Flames would be hounded by fans in long flu-shot lineups was the genesis of players and their families being allowed to jump the queue during pandemic fears in 2009.

But a team doctor, Jim Thorne, says it was Alberta Health Services that actually offered to set up a special H1N1 vaccination clinic away from the prying eyes of nosy gawkers.

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"Listen, these guys aren't the same as everybody — I have concerns," Thorne told a public inquiry Friday as he recalled how he approached a public heath nurse about getting flu shots for the team.

"What I was asking was how to get into the lineup safely and when they came back with the clinic I was like 'whoa.'"

The controversy surrounding the NHL team's H1N1 clinic is one of the few tangible examples the $10-million inquiry into alleged preferential treatment in Alberta health care has to explore.

Thorne said a pandemic was a big concern for the NHL and its teams in 2009. He suggested that while pro athletes can be considered some of the most medically fit people in society, hockey players have close contact with one another, and there was a fear that the flu may take hold and spread rapidly.

"The NHL was planning for it," Thorne said. "They were fearful that they would lose the bulks of their teams and games would be cancelled, travel across borders could be cancelled — there were all sorts of concerns."

In the days before the team shots, Thorne said, the Flames had played the Edmonton Oilers and two Oilers were in the game despite having flu-like symptoms.

The Flames wanted its players to get vaccinated.

"If 99 of 100 cows are immune against one disease, the chance of the 100th cow getting it is very small."

But there were concerns that, unlike the regular flu shot, the H1N1 jab would only be available at a handful of mass distribution centres. There were only four public flu shot clinics serving Calgary's one million people.

"On the first day of the clinics it became very apparent that it was long lineups," Thorne said. "I thought, well, it would probably be a bad idea if the Calgary Flames show up unannounced to one of these lineups."

Thorne had a public health nurse as a patient in his regular family practice. She was on the front line giving shots, so he approached her.

"I said, 'Listen, I am a little bit concerned about the Calgary Flames showing up unannounced to one of your lineups. There should be some preparation. I have concerns that people won't respect their space, that people won't respect their privacy, that there could be lineup control issues in an already stressed lineup, that innocent bystanders may be victims of some crowd issues,'" he testified.

Further, he said, he was worried players wouldn't put up with the hassle and simply skip the shots.

The nurse took it up the chain.

A day later, Thorne got a call from Alberta Health Services offering a private clinic, he said.

He stressed he didn't ask for that. The team was prepared to look at other options such as bringing in its own security and waiting in line.

However, the Flames accepted the offer.

Players, their wives, children, team officials — even Thorne and his daughter — got their shots, five days after the vaccine was first released.

Thorne said vaccinating the families was also the idea of Alberta Health Services. As he understood it, each batch of vaccine contained a large number of doses and it had a very short shelf life once opened and needed to be used up before it spoiled

Thorne estimates 150 shots were given out by two health nurses volunteering on their own time. Players signed autographs for each other's children in the hall while the needles were administered.

Meanwhile, regular folks waited up to five hours in lineups at public clinics. Officials actually stopped giving vaccinations to the general public on the same day as the Flames got theirs over concerns a shortage would mean there wouldn't be enough for the most at-risk patients.

It was a public relations disaster for the team when word got out.

Adding to the bad optics, the paperwork filed along with the shots said they had been administered at one of the public clinics.

Thorne said that was because the vaccine originated at that clinic. It was not an attempt to cover anything up.

"I don't think we were trying to fool anybody to pretend that we were in a lineup."

He said the two nurses were not paid by the team, but he offered them hockey tickets as a token of appreciation. The offer was refused, although one of the nurses did bring her child to the clinic so he could meet some of the players.

The nurses are scheduled to take the stand on Monday.

Ken Hughes, former Alberta Health Services chairmen, testified Friday that he had no idea about the clinic until he heard about it on the news. He said there was initially disagreement between him and Flames president Ken King about who asked for the clinic.

"I felt that this was a very serious breach of a standard that we were trying to establish in an organization," said Hughes, who is now the province's energy minister.

"There was an appearance by favouritism to one group and I was deeply offended by that and Albertans were deeply offended by that."

Alberta Health Services ultimately began an internal investigation. Two unidentified health services employees were fired.

The inquiry has already heard from the health board's former CEO that a similar request from the Edmonton Oilers was turned down.

Thorne called the whole situation regrettable.

"Our initial requests were, seriously, to get into the lineups safely," he said. "When Alberta Health (Services) came back to us with their offer, regrettably, we took their offer. In hindsight, we probably should have got in that lineup with our own security and mitigated crowd control issues."

— By Tim Cook in Edmonton

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