The Alberta government ordered its health officials Saturday to immediately suspend all public H1N1 flu clinics until further notice because of a national shortage of vaccine.
Dr. Gerry Predy, senior medical officer of health, said the province decided to change its approach and start giving the vaccinations only to high-risk groups, including people with chronic health issues, pregnant women, children from six months of age to under five years of age, people in remote and isolated communities and health care workers.
"We will be making an announcement in the coming days to let Albertans know how we will refocus our efforts in light of this new vaccine shortage," Dr. Predy told a news conference Saturday afternoon, adding the targeted clinics would likely resume Monday or Tuesday.
"While regrettable, this reduction in vaccine supply is beyond the control of Alberta Health Services."
Unlike some other provinces, Alberta's vaccination program had until now been geared toward mass immunization, with the shots available to anyone who wanted them.
Dr. Predy said health officials had urged healthy people to step aside and let those in high-risk groups get their shots first, but staff were instructed not to turn anyone away.
Now that's changed.
"We will be very strict and we will be turning people away that don't meet the criteria. The public needs to be aware of that."
Dr. Predy admitted he didn't yet know how the screening would be accomplished.
"I don't have the details to give you about how we're going to do that, because that will be determined over the next couple of days."
On Friday, he had dismissed the idea, saying screening the long lineups would require too much staff and other resources.
"If we had to screen everybody at the front door, that would have slowed the line as well," he said Friday. "We wouldn't have any way of checking if somebody said they had diabetes or asthma. We would just believe them."
But on Saturday, he said Alberta officials would seek advice from other provinces that have already implemented targeted screening.
Flu clinics across the province operated for a few hours Saturday but most were shut down by noon, much to the dismay of people who had lined up to get the shots on their day off.
"Our staff have had a lot of anger directed toward them," Dr. Predy admitted. "It's unfortunate, because I think they've done a great job ... We've been very successful at getting a large number of people vaccinated in a short period of time."
Dr. Predy said Alberta is committed to making sure that everyone gets the H1N1 shot, noting the original immunization plan was to have been spread out over several weeks.
"It is important for the public not to panic and to respect the priorities for vaccination. We are asking for people to be calm. There will be more vaccine for everybody who wants it."
He stressed the province is not out of the vaccine and has enough "to carry on with the campaign targeted more toward high-risk groups."
Dr. Predy said despite the change in direction, he does not regret the decision to start out with mass rather than targeted immunization.
"In retrospect, we still think it was the right thing to do given the information we had at the time we developed the plan."