Rosana Pellizzari, medical officer of health for the eastern Ontario city of Peterborough, donned a Sesame Street jacket on Saturday morning and headed straight to a makeshift vaccination clinic at a local shopping mall.
Dr. Pellizzari strolled the corridors, making sure the hundreds of people facing a two-hour wait to get their H1N1 flu shot knew they would be turned away unless they're at risk of developing complications from the disease.
"It's impossible to tell from looking at someone whether they are in the high-risk group," she said in an interview.
A similar tale played out in sports arenas, schools and civic centres across the nation on Saturday, where Canadians began lining up as early as 4 in the morning for their flu shot, only to be told that all but the most vulnerable could go back home.
The news came as a surprise to many Canadians because health officials had been telling them all week that members of the general public could get the H1N1 vaccine beginning on Saturday.
That all changed at the last minute after vaccine maker GlaxoSmithKline told federal health officials on Thursday that the number of H1N1 doses available to Canadians for next week would shrink by more than half.
The news has thrown a wrench into the biggest vaccination effort in Canadian history, just as more people are becoming sick from the pandemic.
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It is up to doctors and nurses on the front lines to deliver the bad news to people turning out in droves for the flu shot. Provincial health authorities ordered local health care provider to delay the roll out of the vaccine to the general public.
Dr. Pellizzari and her staff scrambled late on Friday to prepare large signs mounted on sandwich boards, and placed at the entrance to the Portage Place mall, saying only those in priority groups would get the flu shot until further notice.
But she said the only way for health officials to tell if many individuals fall into the one of the priority groups is to ask them. The priority groups include pregnant women, young children, adults with chronic health conditions and those living in remote communities.
She opened the clinic in the Portage Place mall 20 minutes early on Saturday morning because of the long lineup and expects her nurses to vaccinate about 1,500 individuals by the time it closes.
The jacket adorned with Big Bird and Cookie Monster helped her stand out in the crowd. Some people were angry when they were turned away, but most were understanding.
"It's tough," she said. "But it's certainly better to tell people as soon as they arrive."
The Globe on H1N1