Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Australia gears up for COVID-19 rollout after ‘historic’ first jabs

Australia gears up for COVID-19 rollout after 'historic' first jabs

Australia has taken its first step toward normal life, with 20 people — including a World War II survivor and the Prime Minister — being vaccinated with the Pfizer vaccination on Sunday.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison described the beginning of Australia’s COVID-19 vaccination program as “historic” and a “game changer” with the potential to transform the country’s response to the pandemic.

“The Australian way has proved to be, when you look around the world, one of the most effective there is. And the reason for that, in my view, has consistently been the strength and resilience of the Australian people,” Mr Morrison said ahead of receiving his jab at Sydney’s Castle Hill Medical Centre.

“What matters is that we get through this all together, and we get to do this together. Greg talked about putting shoulders to the job. Today, I put my shoulder to the jab.”

Aged care residents and the Prime Minister were among the first group of Australians vaccinated at Sydney’s Castle Hill Medical Centre on Sunday.(ABC News: Rani Hayman)

The first batches of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine were received by most states and territories over the weekend and have been sitting inside super-cold freezers, which keep the doses at the requisite -70 degrees Celsius.

Today the nationwide rollout will begin, with Health Minister Greg Hunt expecting “more than 60,000 doses in 240 aged care centres, and 190 towns and suburbs” to have been administered by the end of the week.

The vaccine will be free to all adults who wish to receive it and the federal government says “nobody will be missing out”.

Vaccination against COVID-19 comes into doses, administered at least three weeks apart.

The government has identified key priority groups and first in line to get the jab will be people at increased risk of contracting COVID-19 including border and hotel quarantine workers, and frontline healthcare staff.

Most Australians, however, will be receiving the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine which is being produced by Melbourne based company CSL.

This vaccine has an efficacy rate of 70 per cent, compared with Pfizer’s 95 per cent.

Epidemiologist and World Health Organisation adviser Mary-Louise McLaws praised the move to prioritise hotel quarantine workers.

“It’s not the weapon that’s going to win the COVID war, like the way it was announced by the governor of New York [Andrew Cuomo], but the strategy to target hotel quarantine staff — where there is the greatest risk of exposure will result in a considerable reduction of outbreaks,” she said.

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Before a single dose has been administered in Australia, the rest of the world is racing to get shots in arms.

Over 200 million doses have already been administered internationally and its benefits are already being observed.

Researchers in Israel — where almost half of the population of nine million people have received at least one vaccine dose — found just one shot of the Pfizer vaccine led to lower viral loads.

This meant that even people who became infected between the first and second dose would be less likely to spread the virus.

Earlier in the week, Health Department boss and former chief medical officer Brendan Murphy said it was fortunate the vaccines were being rolled out while there were no community transmissions.

He said an outbreak “might change the schedule, but there is no impending serious risk” at the moment.

States set own goals, but rollout is Commonwealth led

Each state and territory have designated and will manage its own targets and priorities for the rollouts and the first batches will be delivered at one of 16 “Pfizer vaccination hubs”.

Concurrently, the Commonwealth will be managing dosages for aged care facilities, which have made up over 98 per cent of COVID-19 related deaths in the past year.

Each state and territory hopes to achieve the following:

  • NSW will aim to vaccinate 35,000 frontline workers within the first three weeks
  • The Victorian Government will have 12,000 doses for the first week of phase 1a and up to 59,000 doses for the first four weeks
  • Queensland will have 100 doses for the Gold Coast today and will aim to vaccinate 27,000 key workers in the first month
  • South Australia will aim to vaccinate 1,726 frontline workers at Adelaide Airport and the medi-hotel system this week and will have 12,000 for the next three weeks
  • About 5,000 doses will be administered by mid-March with about 1,100 of those reserved for aged and disability care
  • In the ACT, about 4,000 doses have been flagged for the first week

The state and territory not starting their rollouts today are Tasmania and the Northern Territory.

Tasmania will begin its vaccination rollout on Tuesday and will have 2,340 doses ready for the first three weeks, which will double to 4,680 from the fourth week as phase 1b begins.

The rollout will begin in the Top End next week, with about 3,000 vaccinations set to be offered to the most high-risk groups as part of the first phase.

Those in the second phase are expected to receive vaccinations in mid-to-late March, but the wider population shouldn’t expect a vaccination until the second half of 2021.

Pfizer vaccination hubs:

  • Royal Prince Alfred Hospital (NSW)
  • Westmead Hospital (NSW)
  • Liverpool Hospital (NSW)
  • Monash Medical Centre Clayton (VIC)
  • Sunshine Hospital (VIC)
  • Austin Health (VIC)
  • University Hospital Geelong (VIC)
  • Gold Coast University Hospital (QLD)
  • Cairns Hospital (QLD)
  • Princess Alexandra Hospital (QLD)
  • Royal Adelaide Hospital (SA)
  • Flinders Medical Centre (SA)
  • Perth Children’s Hospital (WA)
  • Royal Hobart Hospital (TAS)
  • The Canberra Hospital (ACT)
  • Royal Darwin Hospital (NT)

While distributions will be managed by the states, Victorian Health Minister Martin Foley noted this was ultimately “a Commonwealth-led program” and the rollout in states depends on “what we get and when”.

Health authorities prepare for hesitancy

Professor McLaws said the end-goal of this rollout would be herd immunity — when enough of the population is vaccinated, the virus is effectively eradicated because it cannot spread.

She said it was difficult to identify the “magic number” needed to achieve herd immunity, but if three-out-of-five vaccines administered were AstraZeneca and the rest was Pfizer, then at least 75 per cent of the population needed to be jabbed.

This number may even go up to 90 per cent, depending on variant strains.

A study published by the Australian National University (ANU) study released last week found that one in five respondents to a survey said they would decline the jab.

The anti-science messages were again elevated after Facebook implemented a blanket ban on trusted news sources over media bargaining codes, which allowed anti-vaccination pages to thrive unchecked.

“I think it’s a very heavy-handed approach [Facebook] taken, and certainly there can be bias in the way the media presents different things, but by and large, the media is a counterbalance to totally unregulated, anti-vaccine conspiracy theories,” said Jessica Kaufman, a research fellow at Murdoch Children’s Research Institute said.

Health authorities have declined to make vaccination mandatory but state leaders have signalled not getting vaccinated may impact employment and travel prospects.

“I would presume that airlines might say when they want people vaccinated when they’re going on international flights,” NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said last week.

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