01/17/2013 01:09 EST | Updated 03/19/2013 05:12 EDT

Inquiry told families of Edmonton nurses jumped lineups for flu shots

CALGARY - As thousands of people waited in line each day for H1N1 shots, nurses were letting relatives move to the front or gave the vaccine to family or friends after hours and at home.

Several nurses told Alberta's queue-jumping inquiry Thursday that they saw nothing wrong with what they were doing during that hectic time in the fall of 2009. And there was no policy against it.

Judy Brosseau, operations manager for the Northgate clinic in Edmonton's north end, recalled meeting family members of one nurse who had let them cut the line so she could give them shots. Brosseau wasn't concerned.

"She would have been doing it on her own time" — during a break or after hours, Brosseau testified.

Brosseau also admitted she once took a vial of the vaccine home and immunized her daughter's friends. But she said she did so because there were about 86 opened, mixed vials that were about to expire. And they were all going to be tossed in the trash.

"It made me uncomfortable we wouldn't be able to use it all," she said. "I thought I might be able to get some people to use it."

She said that at the time, she didn't give it a second thought. But then news leaked that a special clinic had been set up in Calgary for Flames hockey players and their families. There was a public backlash and two health staff were fired.

Brosseau testified she wouldn't give private shots at home again. "Not with this current climate."

The inquiry heard that the mass H1N1 clinics were stressful and chaotic. People across the country were dying from the pandemic flu and everyone wanted shots as soon as possible.

About 3,000 people lined up one day at an Edmonton clinic before 9 a.m.. Most clinics had to cut their lines off by noon.

The nurses testified about fights and arguments in the lines. Some people even threatened to bring guns. There was often security at the sites but Edmonton police also had to be called in for crowd control.

On Oct. 31, less than a week after shots started being administered, top health managers were told that the city's clinics would be closing for a few days due to a national shortage of the vaccine. They were to keep the news secret from other staff and the public until the clinics had closed for the day.

Susan Smith testified that after the Bonnie Doon clinic on Edmonton's south side had shut down, some open vaccine vials were left over. They had a shelf life of 24 hours and were going to be tossed out.

So she opened the locked doors the next day for some select people. She gave 15 shots to a staff member and their family and friends —eight of them children.

Smith testified she thought she had been authorized to do whatever she could to ensure the vaccine wasn't wasted. But she also didn't tell any of her managers what she had done.

"We were in an emergency situation and we had a very limited resource that we did not want to waste. My feeling was not to waste the vaccine and that was more important than anything, really."

One nursing manager, Joy Lohan, testified what Smith did was inappropriate but understandable. "Personally, I thought good for her. She thought of a way to use it."

She told the inquiry that pandemic plans should be rewritten to give staff and their families priority for shots. That way, they're less likely to get sick and can work in clinics to give the public innoculations.

Nursing director Linda Duffley testified she had heard rumours about shots being given after hours. And when she learned nurses at Northgate were letting family members jump the queue, she told their boss to put a stop to it.

She didn't know if the practice was widespread, yet it took her two months to put out a memo to all staff dictating that such actions were inappropriate. She explained that it took so long because the clinics were so hectic.

Christine Westerlund, a regional manager, testified that before the memo came out, she saw nothing wrong with what nurses were doing.

She said nurses should be healthy and working in clinics rather than staying home with sick children or waiting with them in lineups for shots. And all nurses are taught not to waste vaccines.

The commissioner heading the inquiry, retired judge John Vertes, asked Westerlund: if the clinics were about to close for a few days and opened vials of the vaccine were going to be thrown out, why not keep the doors open longer and use up all the shots?

Westerlund said it would have been too dangerous. Too many people had already been turned away.

"To actually open it up and have somebody wandering by and say, 'Hey, we have another three doses. Come, sit.' It would have actually, potentially caused more panic ... I don't want to say a riot, but it could have caused something."

— By Chris Purdy in Edmonton