Government shifts focus of COVID-19 battle

As COVID-19 cases continue to grow in New South Wales and Queensland, with 233 locally acquired cases confirmed today, vaccination is under ever-increasing focus.

After Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a 70% vaccination target must be reached before the nation starts to move away from lockdowns, Doherty Industry modelling suggested a refocus in the rollout to target young adult ‘peak spreaders’.

The document recommends targeting adults aged 30–39 in early September, followed by the 16–29 age cohort from the beginning of October, estimating that the government’s goal could be reached by 1 November. 

There are currently more than 288 pharmacies across Australia administering the vaccine, which Federal Health Minister for Health Greg Hunt said would swell to 700 in the coming weeks.

Mr Hunt also indicated pharmacies could be tapped to conduct rapid antigen tests following the conclusion of a clinical trial.

In state vaccination news, the NSW Government has set a target of 6 million by month’s end, around half the state’s population, to address the deepening COVID-19 crisis. Two more deaths were announced today, including an unvaccinated man in his 20s.

Following a change in the risk profile due to Queensland’s mounting case numbers, Chief Health Officer Jeannette Young has changed her stance on the AstraZeneca vaccine somewhat.

‘If [people under 60] think they have a particular risk, [they should] immediately go and talk to their own doctor,’ Dr Young said.

‘The ATAGI [Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation] advice said that when we reach a large outbreak, which I think we’re on the verge of … that is the time to discuss [vaccination] with your GP.’

The virus has now popped up in Far North Queensland, with a positive case announced in Cairns yesterday. But residents can now be vaccinated at their local community pharmacy, with over 26 joining the vaccine effort last weekend.

High demand for vaccines

New data released by Operation COVID Shield has indicated that wealthy Sydney and Melbourne enclaves are the most vaccinated in the nation, while areas such as Sydney’s hard-hit south west are among the lowest.

But residents in Sydney’s local government areas of concern are heeding the call to get vaccinated, with some pharmacists who were fast-tracked to administer the vaccine quickly burning through their supply.

Pharmacy owner Quinn On MPS, who began administering the vaccine on 26 July in two of his pharmacies, managed to work through 3 weeks’ supply in just 4 days.

At Priceline Pharmacy Cabramatta, Mr On administered 600 vaccines in 6 days, borrowing 100 from his other pharmacy and a further 200 from a fellow pharmacist.

Luckily, Mr On received a new shipment of 600 vaccines on Monday afternoon to cater to the growing demand, with the Vaccine Operations Centre indicating it would prioritise deliveries for pharmacies in hotspot areas that have run out.

‘People were waiting in line [on Monday] at 8am and we weren’t even open,’ Mr On told Australian Pharmacist.

‘From 10 am until 2 pm, we [administered] 100 vaccines.’

A smooth vaccination process

To ensure they get as many patients through the door as possible, the pharmacy now caters exclusively to walk-ins, with safety procedures in place to minimise the risk of exposure.

Fairfield Council has approved Mr On’s use of the footpath outside the pharmacy as a space for patients to line up for their vaccine, complete with appropriately-spaced crosses to ensure social distancing.

As they approach the pharmacy doors, patients are screened by staff, including one pharmacist, Mr On’s wife Helen, who will answer any ‘curly’ questions that may arise.

Over the past week, the team has encountered patients with an array of concerns, some related to post-vaccine side effects, and others around chronic conditions or contraindications.

‘There’s [been] a lot of queries, such as “I had a brain aneurysm 13 years ago, but I’ve been fine since then” or “I’m on clopidogrel, or 100 milligram aspirin every day, am I okay?”’ he said.

Some patients with preexisting conditions, such as diabetes or high blood pressure, have indicated they are concerned about blood clots.

But the team will reassure them that these conditions aren’t linked to clotting, and that their screening questionnaire is all clear.

If there is any lingering uncertainty around safety, patients will be directed back to their GP.

Inside, Mr On’s son, a third-year pharmacy student, is exclusively tasked with drawing up the vaccines. Patients’ time in the vaccination room is short lived, to ensure close contact is kept to a minimum.

‘For the observation [period], we give them a sticker like at the [Sydney mass vaccination] hub,’ he said.

‘So if they were vaccinated at 1 pm, they get a sticker for 1.15 pm, and I will tell them in Vietnamese or Chinese to sit outside in the observation area until [then].’

The road to recovery

Meanwhile, as pharmacies continue to be listed as venues of concern, with more than 100 in greater Sydney subjected to health alerts since early July, many pharmacists and their staff have had to endure periods of isolation.

This is a process Chris Pollard knows all too well, after his pharmacy in the south-west Sydney suburb of St Andrews became an exposure site almost a month ago (7 July).

‘It was stressful,’ Mr Pollard told AP. ‘We hold scripts and look after dose administration aids for people, but fortunately we weren’t exposed multiple times.’

While half the pharmacy’s staff were required to isolate for 14 days following the exposure, the other half filled the breach to continue to serve the community.

‘We adjusted our operating hours, opening half an hour later and closing an hour earlier,’ he said. 

‘While it wasn’t a massive reduction in hours, it gave us a bit of time to do after-hours [work] and get on top of things for the next day.’

The groundswell of support from the local community also helped the team persevere.

‘They were checking in that everyone was okay, which was really quite humbling.’

Now that the dust has settled and the staff are out of isolation, the pharmacy has continued to work under a split team arrangement to ensure they can weather another storm.

‘If the same situation [was to arise], we would still have half the staff to manage on,’ Mr Pollard added.

If patients with obvious respiratory symptoms enter the pharmacy, and their COVID-19 status is undetermined, they will be asked to wait outside.

‘Our method of handling it is to say “If you’re happy to wait in the car, we’ll bring your medicine out to you”,’ he said.

As Mr Pollard waits to begin vaccinating patients against COVID-19 later this month, he echoed Mr On’s reports of high demand in the south-west Sydney community.

‘We’re getting multiple requests daily and that should [hopefully] flow through to vaccinations,’ he said.

‘The more places people can go, whether they be GP clinics, pharmacies, or vaccine hubs, [will help] to make it as easy as possible.’