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People line up for swine flu shots inside EMS Whitehorn in northeast Calgary where the reported waiting time was two hours. ((CBC))

Overwhelming lineups for swine-flu shots forced Alberta health officials to extend clinic hours in Calgary on the first day of a mass vaccination campaign Monday.

Only four clinics are offering the free shot in Calgary, and unlike most other provinces, Alberta isn't prioritizing certain groups to get it first.

Health officials are encouraging those at greater risk to get the shot early. But any Albertan over six months of age can get the vaccine, which inoculates against the strain of H1N1 influenza A virus causing the current swine flu pandemic.  

'A million people, four places you can get the shot. Let's do the math.' —Wayne Keen

At the Richmond Road diagnostic treatment centre in the southwest, the line was so long people were giving up.

"We saw the lineups. They were huge, huge, huge. So we will come back," Ann Deboer said early Monday morning. "We saw a lot of people in walkers, little babies and pregnant moms. It's really worth the wait for them. We just happen to have pregnant daughters and wee little grandchildren, so that's why we want the flu vaccine."

Wayne Keen, who isn't among the high risk groups, also gave up after talking to people in line who estimated that the wait would run up to four hours.

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Wayne Keen gave up after talking to people in line who estimated that the wait time would be up to four hours. ((CBC))

"I can't believe we put the government in charge of this," Keen said. "A million people, four places you can get the shot. Let's do the math. Make it available through pharmacies, make it available through doctors' offices, set up clinics all over the city. I am not the brightest guy in the world, but I have got to have this figured out better than they do."

By Monday evening, Alberta Health Services announced new people would not be accepted into the queue after 5 p.m. but that the clinic hours would be extended to 11 p.m. to ensure everyone already in line got the vaccine.

Officials are looking at easing lineups in coming days possibly by adding staff to the vaccination clinics, opening another site, or permanently extending clinic hours, said an AHS news release.

Calgary flu clinics

  • Avenida Village, 303-12445 Lake Fraser Dr. S.E.
  • Brentwood Village Mall, 302-3630 Brentwood Rd. N.W.
  • EMS Whitehorn, north side entrance, 100-305 35th St. N.E.
  • Richmond Road diagnostic treatment centre, 1820 Richmond Rd. S.W. 

Open on drop-in basis Monday to Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. and weekends 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Information about the mass vaccination clinics is available on Alberta Health Service's website.

Calgary's deputy medical officer of health, Dr. Judy MacDonald, defended the mass clinics as the best way to reach all Calgarians, including high-risk groups.

"We have a limited workforce. The best way to achieve vaccinating the whole population is to concentrate our resources. If we start just having a few nurses here and there, it starts making it less efficient. We do want to make it as accessible as we can. Those four clinics are open seven days a week and for prolonged hours."

Health-care workers are getting their shots at dedicated clinics, she said. The H1N1 shot could be offered in such settings as doctors' offices and workplaces by mid-November.

Axel Moehrenschlager, who has a pregnant wife and seven-year-old daughter, said whatever the wait, it is worth it.

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One man was in line at 4:30 a.m. Monday outside Calgary's Avenida Village Mall for one of four mass immunization clinics in the city.

"I think it is absolutely is and this is what we basically all need to do," he said. "First of all for oneself, but also for the people around us."

At a clinic in Avenida Village Mall serving the city's southeast, some of the 200 people in line before it opened said they arrived early to ensure they or their families would be among the first to receive the vaccine.

One man had been holding a place in line for his wife and children since about 4:30 a.m. By the time the clinic opened at 8:30 a.m., more than 500 people were in the growing lineup, and some reported a wait of six hours by the afternoon.

Health officials said about 4,000 vaccine shots were given in the first few hours of the four mass clinics on Monday.

Alberta should have 400,000 doses of the vaccine available on Monday, and with regular shipments expected, health officials say there will be enough to vaccinate everyone who wants the shot. Health officials hope to see between 65 and 70 per cent of the population immunized.

Seasonal flu shot also offered

The federal government has also ordered 1.8 million doses without the vaccine adjuvant, or booster, for pregnant women and young children. Health officials in Alberta said those vaccines won't be available until Nov. 9, and they are encouraging everyone to get the available vaccine.

"Non-adjuvanted vaccine is recommended for pregnant women and small children, but both vaccines are considered equally safe," indicates the Alberta Health Services website. Women more than 20 weeks into pregnancy who live in areas where the rate of the disease is high should be offered the adjuvanted vaccine, the website states.

High-risk groups health officials say should get the shot early:

  • People under 65 with chronic health conditions and their caregivers.
  • Pregnant women.
  • Children six months to less than five years of age and their caregivers.
  • People living in remote and isolated settings or communities.
  • Health-care workers involved in pandemic response or the delivery of essential health-care services.
  • Household contacts and care providers of persons at high risk who cannot be immunized or may not respond to vaccines

Source: Alberta Health

Alberta began offering a free seasonal flu shot on Oct. 13. As long as each shot is given in a different arm, the H1N1 and seasonal shots can be administered in the same visit where the resources are available, health officials said.

Clinical trials worldwide suggest that up to 85 per cent of healthy adults who are vaccinated will develop immunity within 10 days. Alberta's flu season isn't over until mid-April.

Canada has entered the second phase of the swine flu pandemic, which means that a drop in cases won't occur until enough people have been inoculated against the H1N1 influenza A virus — either through vaccination or by contracting the virus, said Dr. David Butler-Jones, the country's chief public health officer.

In Alberta, H1N1 has sent 180 people to hospital and killed nine. The median age of those who have become ill in Canada with laboratory-confirmed swine flu is 21, and the median age of those who died is 51.