Crisis? What crisis? Flu-shot experience was efficient, polite

Canadians are used to standing in line and it took only 45 minutes

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The Gazette, Sunday, November 8, 2009

Standing in line for an H1N1 vaccination yesterday morning, an elderly woman was reading the front page headline in her Gazette: "Montrealers get in line."

This line was at the métro level of Alexis Nihon Plaza. It moved very smartly. It was extremely well organized. Everyone involved, from the health-care workers to the people running the queue, knew what their jobs were and did them in a highly efficient and friendly manner. They had even hired a clown to entertain the kids in line.

And there were lots of kids, from babes in arms to toddlers in strollers, as well as their parents, on the second day of this clinic run by the Quebec government's Montreal Health and Social Services Agency. It's one of 15 sites on the island of Montreal, and by next week there will be five more, including one at the Olympic Stadium.

The mood of the people in line was calm and good-humoured, not a lot different than a queue for a children's movie matinee, or for that matter DisneyWorld, the evident model for giving out coupons with times written on them. There was no jostling, no shoving, and no queue-jumping. Canadians are conditioned from birth to stand in line. Above all, there was no sign of panic or even anxiety. Parents mixed easily, comparing their H1N1 mental preparation notes back and forth in both official languages.

Best of all, they were not lined up in the cold, catching air-borne germs from hundreds of others. It was all indoors, and from the time anyone joined the line, it took only 45 minutes to get vaccinated.

The first thing people in the line received was a note from the doctor, Richard Lessard, head of the health agency, "to inform you that new priority groups have been chosen for Montreal," asking citizens to respect them. On the other side of the one-page letter, available in either language, he explained which groups would be vaccinated first, and why. First, children, 6 months to 5 years. Then, parents and siblings of infants younger than 6 months. Then, women 20 weeks pregnant or more, and persons with chronic medical conditions, such as asthma or diabetes.

Although I'm in a low-risk demographic, I was able to join the line as the parent of an infant under 6 months of age. Zara is 4 months old and lives with her mother at her grandparents' home in Whitby, Ont. She is the picture of good health, but like mothers of all infants under 6 months of age, her mom is understandably determined to avoid exposure to anyone who hasn't been vaccinated, at least until the baby can be.

It took a little explaining at the registration desk, and it definitely helped that I had a photo-copy of her birth certificate, as well as her SIN and Ontario health cards. Not to mention baby pictures. But they were very sympathetic and understanding.

When the clerk punches in the number of your Quebec health card, the computer automatically generates a form with your name, address, postal code and phone number, and all you need to do is attest that you understand the caveats, and hand it off to the "verification desk," before being vaccinated.

And that's the quickest part of the whole process, taking no more time than it does to roll up your sleeve. Then, they ask you to take 15 minutes in a waiting room, to make sure you're not having a bad reaction to the shot. Total elapsed time, 60 minutes, exactly one hour. And the service was outstanding, starting with security guards greeting you with a smile, and ending with the health-care worker who administers the vaccine and sends you on your way with a piece of paper attesting to the vaccination.

"Put that with your important papers," she said pleasantly.

"Good work, thank you."

In all the furor over the H1N1 rollout in the last two weeks, the media and the political class bear some responsibility for raising anxiety levels in this country. Both have lost sight of the inherent patience of Canadians, and the ability of health-care providers to sort out difficulties and deliver the product.

It's one thing to get worked up over pro hockey players jumping the queue ahead of pregnant women. It's another for the opposition Liberals to call the rollout "a national disgrace" or compare it to Hurricane Katrina, which was the tipping point in the political fall from grace of the second George Bush. The blame game is a not a long game, and could be dangerous to the Liberals' health.

Our constitutional division of powers might be imperfect, and might not have envisioned pandemics, but it has served us well enough for nearly a century and a half. Ottawa is responsible for the safety of our citizens, and assuring a supply of vaccine; the provinces are responsible for delivering the service and meeting the demand.

It's the way our country works. And it works best when the people providing the service, and the people receiving it, regard each other with kindness and respect.

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