By Aleksandra Bliszczyk
General practioners, vaccine staff and patients seeking COVID-19 vaccines have been left perplexed after the Prime Minster announced several new vaccination eligibility rules that contradict health advice.
Following an emergency national cabinet meeting last week, Scott Morrison announced a raft of chances to the federal vaccine rollout, including a vaccine mandate for all aged care workers and transport workers working with quarantine staff.
He also said the government would now allow people under 40 who wanted to receive the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine to do so, and encouraged people to consult with their GP prior to doing so.
Seymour Medical Clinic practice manager Rebecca O’Loughlin said patients were just as confused about eligibility as she and her COVID-19 vaccine staff.
“It’s just a really confusing time for patients and staff, because the rules change every five minutes,” she said.
“It’s extremely frustrating that they can’t just roll it out in simple manner.”
Kilmore Medical Centre practice manager Ram Lakshmipathy said he was disappointed vaccine providers were not told first-hand.
“We came to know through the radio,” he said.
“We’re in the age of very good communication … faxes are working, emails are working, they can communicate directly to us, so I wonder why they announce it [and] we come to know like everyone else.”
Mr Morrison’s AstraZeneca announcement came at the end of a press conference, only when he was answering journalists’ questions.
When one journalist sought clarification on his comment ‘encouraging’ anyone to consult with their GPs about the AstraZeneca vaccine, he replied: “Well, if they wish to go and speak to their doctor and have access to the AstraZeneca vaccine, they can do so. The answer is yes, they can go and do that.”
The announcement caused confusion among health professionals as it contradicted health advice that has been in place since mid-June: that people under 60 have been advised not to preference AstraZeneca due to its slightly higher risk of causing a rare blood clotting condition. Prior to June 17, AstraZeneca was not recommended for under 40s.
Chief health officer Paul Kelly said the vaccine had always been approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration for people aged over 18, and the announcement only changed vaccine access and availability.
Recommendations from the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) and Australia’s health advice remain unchanged this week, that Pfizer is the preferred vaccine for under 60s.
The announcement also confused state leaders, with Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland premiers announcing the decision was not made at the national cabinet meeting and they were not previously informed.
Each premier also told their constituents to follow the public health advice, and AstraZeneca vaccines would not be made available to under 60s in state-run vaccine hubs.
Mr Lakshmipathy described the vaccine rollout as a ‘hectic journey’.
“They keep changing these rules and it’s been all over the place and the clinic takes the brunt from the patients,” he said.
“They change the rules [from under 40 to] under 60 only with Pfizer and we had a lot of patients abusing us actually because we had to call them and cancel some of their appointments.”
Kilmore Medical Clinic was the first in the area to start offering COVID-19 vaccinations and has administered more than 1000 doses since March 22.
Since last week’s announcements, Mr Lakshmipathy said they had been managing more confusion among patients.
“We have got quite a few calls asking if they could come in but the advice is conflicting, they have to get the clearance from the GP,” he said.
Mr Lakshmipathy said it had been ‘frustrating’ to not feel supported or kept in the loop.
He also said the ever-changing advice on AstraZeneca had precipitated some fear in the community.
“We have some patients who after taking their first jabs, who are elderly, don’t want to take the second one – they’re scared they say – and they’ve cancelled,” he said.
But he said cancellations had led to vaccine wastage because each vile contained 10 doses, and once a dose is drawn, the rest must be used within a certain timeframe.
“If one or two cancels at the last minute then what do you do with the other doses? It goes to waste. It’s very hard to find patients at the last minute,” he said.
Meanwhile, Northern Health’s COVID-19 vaccination program this week celebrated a milestone of 50,000 doses administered since the rollout began.
Northern Health has two clinics, at the Epping hospital and at the Plenty Ranges Arts and Convention Centre in South Morang, both of which have some of the highest vaccination capacities of clinics in the area, administering about 1000 doses each day.
Aged care mandate
Kilmore District Health chief executive David Naughton welcomed the Prime Minister’s mandate on COVID-19 vaccinations for aged care workers.
“I think it’s an excellent, timely move. We’ll be working with those staff to make sure it happens and making sure they’re well informed, aware of what the issues are and working with them to answer any queries they might have,” he said.
All aged care workers must have at least their first dose of the vaccine by mid-September, which Mr Naughton said was appropriate.
He said 62 per cent of staff at the hospital’s Dianella and Caladenia aged care homes had already had their first dose, so the cohort would ‘well and truly’ meet the deadline.
“[The] core to working our way through the pandemic is to have as many people vaccinated as we can and having mandatory vaccinations for people working in such a high-risk area is a really good outcome,” he said.