EXPLAINER

Where is Australia's COVID-19 vaccine rollout up to?

Pharmacy Guild of Australia's ACT branch president Simon Blacker, who says pharmacies are keen to start helping with the vaccine rollout. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos
Pharmacy Guild of Australia's ACT branch president Simon Blacker, who says pharmacies are keen to start helping with the vaccine rollout. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Announcements about the national COVID-19 vaccine rollout strategy have been pretty constant and, for many, it might seem near impossible to keep track of what has changed.

But how much have the goalposts actually shifted?

Here's a breakdown of what was planned for the vaccine strategy, and where we are at with it now.

Over-50s

One of the big announcements from national cabinet on Thursday was the Pfizer vaccine would, at this stage, be generally restricted to people under 50, as well as to disability and aged care residents.

So people over the age of 50 would now have to get the AstraZeneca vaccine.

National leaders had agreed to "bring forward" those vaccinations for people aged between 50 and 69.

They could start getting them at general practice respiratory clinics from May 3, as well as at state and territory vaccination centres.

They could start getting them at their normal GPs from May 17.

It was estimated early on that "phase 2a" of the vaccine rollout, which includes people aged between 50 and 69 and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people under 50, would begin by about the middle of the year.

By early March, that phase was expected to start in May.

There was a bit of doubt about that when, earlier this month, the federal government abandoned the target to vaccinate all Australians by the end of 2021.

This announcement that phase 2a would indeed start in May at least puts us somewhat back on track in terms of people over 50.

National cabinet also agreed on Thursday to expand "phase 1b" of the vaccine rollout to include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people over the age of 50, rather than people just over the age of 55, which was originally the plan.

What about people under 50?

Confidence in the AstraZeneca vaccine was shattered when the government announced it was no longer recommended for under-50s.

That was in light of advice from the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation, after concerns the jab was linked to extremely rare blood clots in people under 50.

Given younger people were originally meant to be able to get either the Pfizer vaccine or the AstraZeneca vaccine, there's been a lot of talk around how Australia would facilitate giving them the preferred Pfizer jab.

Limiting access to the Pfizer vaccine to mostly people under 50 should go some way to addressing the issue.

National cabinet on Thursday agreed to "immediately" open state and territory-operated vaccination sites to all people who were eligible to get a COVID-19 jab.

Australia is up to "phase 1b" in its vaccination rollout, so that includes healthcare workers, emergency services workers, and people with an underlying health condition who are under 50.

Whereas they might have gone to their local GP before to get an AstraZeneca vaccine, they'll now get to go to government-operated hubs to get a Pfizer vaccine. Before, those hubs likely would have primarily only been open to front line healthcare, quarantine and border workers.

States and territories were working on opening these hubs to all those eligible people as soon as possible.

National leaders also agreed on Thursday there should be a "Pfizer mass vaccination plan", which would include state and territory mass vaccination sites, as well as large general practice-based vaccination sites.

They also agreed to let 16 and 17-year-olds get Pfizer vaccinations further down the track.

What remains to be seen, and where are we lacking?

One area Australia is still lacking in when it comes to the vaccination rollout is the disability sector.

As at Tuesday, just 6.5 per cent of residents in Australia's disability care facilities had received a COVID-19 vaccine, eight weeks into the rollout.

Officials revealed aged care residents had been prioritised over disability care residents after initial delays in the rollout, due to their perceived higher risk.

Outcomes from Thursday's national cabinet meeting don't go any way to addressing that issue.

But Health Department secretary Brendan Murphy has offered his assurance the disability care population would be fully vaccinated very soon, given the aged care vaccination program was nearing its conclusion.

Australian opposition spokesman for health Mark Butler on Friday said two-thirds of the country's aged care residents were still yet to be vaccinated.

Australia's community pharmacies were slated to help with the COVID-19 vaccine rollout from phase 2a, so in May, but that plan has been deferred for now.

Pharmacy Guild of Australia's ACT branch president Simon Blacker said pharmacies were keen to get involved sooner rather than later. Many submitted expressions of interest earlier this year.

"At the start of the year, we were expecting to be involved in May," he said.

"The latest information we have is that, in the next week or so, community pharmacies that have completed an expression of interest will be notified whether they may be selected at some stage to be eligible to be involved in the vaccine rollout.

"Community pharmacy has shown over the last few years that we can help lift vaccination rates, and influenza is the best example of that.

"Every second person we vaccinate for flu has questions about the COVID vaccination."

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Thursday states and territories could elect to involve their pharmacies into their vaccine rollout plans if they were "in rural and remote areas where there were no or limited other points of presence", but their broader role was on the backburner.

Mr Morrison said national cabinet had agreed more doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine should be allocated to GPs to ensure they maintained their "lead role" in that aspect of the rollout.

Demand and supply permitting, those doses could be redirected from the states and territories.

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This story Where is Australia's COVID-19 vaccine rollout up to? first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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