As Australia sits on the knife edge of a national COVID-19 outbreak, authorities are scrambling to bolster vaccination rates.
Four major cities have been plunged into lockdown after the Delta variant jumped across state lines. New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced Greater Sydney would face lengthy stay-at-home orders from 26 June, with Darwin soon following suit.
Both Perth and Brisbane have since instituted snap lockdowns in an attempt to curb the spread.
There are concerns the virus has infiltrated the healthcare system, with two unvaccinated workers in Brisbane and Sydney recently testing positive.
One, a receptionist stationed outside Brisbane’s Prince Charles Hospital COVID-19 ward, is thought to have been infectious for 10 days before she was confirmed to have the Delta variant.
Late last night, a student nurse who worked in Sydney’s Fairfield and Royal North Shore hospitals was also confirmed to have the virus.
‘We know that the student nurse worked whilst infectious on a number of days, and obviously immediately our health team swung into action,’ NSW Chief Health Officer Dr Kerry Chant said today.
‘The wards that staff member worked at have been locked down, so [they’re] not taking any additional patients.’
In other breaking news, restrictions have been announced in South Australia, including mask mandates and limited private gatherings, following 5 new cases of community transmission linked to a returned miner from the Northern Territory.
While Victoria is holding firm with just 1 new case of community transmission today, travel restrictions with other states have been introduced.
As it stands, there are an estimated 294 active cases of COVID-19 in the country.
AstraZeneca vaccine available to the masses
In a bid to ramp up the nation’s vaccine rollout, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced on Monday that Australians under 60 years of age who are keen to receive the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine are welcome to discuss it with their GP.
This advice, however, was not endorsed by Dr Omar Khorshid, President of the Australian Medical Association (AMA).
‘It took us by surprise … I think it’s going to be a limited number of people [who] take it up, given that they would be going against the expert ATAGI recommendation,” Dr Khorshid said.
‘Our recommendation is still really for patients to follow the ATAGI advice. Be patient and have the ATAGI-recommended vaccine when it’s available.’
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk was more forceful, urging residents under 40 not to receive the AstraZeneca vaccine.
‘My message to Queenslanders today, is please listen to [Chief Health Officer] Dr [Jeannette] Young and listen to the health experts when it comes to the vaccine,’ she said.
‘At the moment, the advice is for people aged 40 to 59 to get Pfizer, and people 60 and over to get AstraZeneca. There has been no national cabinet decision about AstraZeneca being given to under-40s.’
NSW leaders are also dubious, with Ms Berejiklian announcing today that the state will follow the advice of the national health regulator (ATAGI) for people under 40 who are interested in receiving the vaccine.
Anyone in that age bracket who wants to receive the AstraZeneca vaccine must seek advice from their GP, she warned.
‘For younger people we really encourage you to go to your GP … a mass vaccination centre is not the setting to have that discussion,’ Dr Chant added.
Despite questions, however, both Ms Berejiklian and Dr Chant stopped short of criticising the Federal Government’s decision to make the AstraZeneca vaccine available to this age cohort.
In most jurisdictions, pharmacists currently administering the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine in one of the growing number of regional community pharmacies, general practice or vaccination clinics can, with informed consent, administer AstraZeneca to patients under the age of 60.
However, as with general practice, they will only be doing so after advice is provided that aligns with ATAGI and what Chief Health Officers across the country are providing. Pfizer is currently the preferred vaccination for this age group.
Key risk/benefits also need to be discussed as part of the informed consent process. Although AstraZeneca is TGA-approved for this age group, its not the current ATAGI recommendation.
No-fault indemnity for pharmacists
A new no-fault indemnity scheme for health professionals giving COVID-19 vaccines was announced by the Federal Minister for Health Greg Hunt on Monday, which will also protect patients.
Lieutenant General John Frewen, who is leading the Department of Defence’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, said the national decision would provide ‘added reassurance’ to healthcare professionals in the wake of the wider availability of the AstraZeneca vaccine.
Dr Khorshid similarly welcomed the move, which will retrospectively cover health professionals including pharmacists and GPs.
However, Tom Ballantyne, medical negligence lawyer at Maurice Blackburn said the scheme could be counterintuitive.
‘It just seems absurd, frankly, to be getting the public focused on the fact that their GP, pharmacist or nurse might be doing something wrong in trying to get the population vaccinated with an approved vaccine, even though they are clearly just following government guidelines in the middle of a global pandemic,’ he said.
Vaccine efficacy in full force
At a recent ‘super spreader’ event in NSW, the only people among about 30 birthday party attendees not infected with COVID-19 were the fully vaccinated healthcare workers, demonstrating the effectiveness of the vaccine in real time.
‘To emphasise just how important vaccinations are … not one of those 24 people were vaccinated,’ NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard said.
‘I can also advise that [of the] 6 health workers who attended the party, who were fully vaccinated, not one of those people has been infected.’
Another attendee, an aged care worker who has received their first dose, was also not infected, Mr Hazzard said.
‘Short message is, get vaccinated,’ he added.
All residential aged care workers will need to receive their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine by mid-September, the National Cabinet agreed on Monday.
While Caralyn Smith from the United Workers Union supports the decision, she said it’s possible some will refuse the mandate.
‘Some people may leave because there’s lots of misinformation [about vaccines] out in the community,’ she said.
Pat Sparrow, CEO of Aged and Community Services Australia agreed. ‘It is a risk that we’ll see exits from the industry,’ she said.
Meanwhile, it’s likely the private sector, including banks and mining companies, will be asked to participate in the vaccine rollout by year’s end.
‘I know across business, there are sectors who would be keen to do that themselves; they’re currently not empowered to do that,’ Lieutenant General Frewen said.
Jennifer Westacott, CEO of the Business Council of Australia, said big businesses were well-equipped to participate in the rollout given their experience of vaccinating staff against influenza.
‘There’s a lot of preparatory work that can be done now so that when we have the vaccine we can go really hard,’ she said.