Jeremy Lasek, PHAA
Just when you thought our COVID-ravaged world couldn’t get more crazy, we get a week like this week.
With new coronavirus cases springing up across the country in the past week, every state and territory has introduced a mix of strict new lockdown rules, border closures and other restrictions.
The majority of Australians are being asked to work from home and mask up when they leave home for shopping and medical appointments. Businesses have again been severely impacted and the tourism industry in particular is suffering another school holiday effectively lost, as people adhere to the strict stay-at-home orders.
All of this provided an incredible backdrop for the opening today of the Public Health Association of Australia’s (PHAA) National Immunisation Conference, where Australia’s battle to control COVID is front and centre on a packed three-day agenda.
New vaccination measures
Adding another layer of complexity, following an emergency meeting of National Cabinet last night, on the eve of the conference, the Prime Minister announced a raft of new measures to better support the vaccination rollout. These include mandatory vaccinations for the entire aged care workforce in Australia (but not before September), and the age cap preventing those under 40 from seeking the AstraZeneca vaccine has gone.
In opening the conference, Australia’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Paul Kelly acknowledged that while the vaccine rollout was slower than most would have wanted there have now been more than seven million doses distributed, with 260,000 people receiving a shot of AstraZeneca in the past week.
With older Australians being targeted as our most vulnerable, Professor Kelly said more than 50% of over 50s, over 60% of over 60s, and more than 70% of over 70s have now had at least one vaccine dose.
For the latest decision, mandating vaccinations for all aged care workers across Australia, Professor Kelly said a number of issues were still being worked through, including the risk of workers who don’t want the vaccine leaving the profession.
He said to date only one-third of the aged care workforce had taken up the offer of vaccination despite it being widely available through at least five different mechanisms for months. He said all aged care workers were being encouraged to have their vaccination well before the mandated 14 September date.
The importance of getting vaccinated
All speakers in the opening session agreed that vaccination was the key to a return to some sort of normality, including eventually opening up Australia’s borders for international travel (although no-one was prepared to put a time frame on when that might happen).
Professor Kelly admitted ‘a few kinks’ in Australia’s vaccine supply to date, mostly beyond Australia’s control. The good news, he said, was that Australia has been promised 40 million doses of Pfizer vaccine by the end of the year, and 10 million doses of Moderna vaccine in the same time frame.
‘So we will have a lot of vaccine, it’s just not here at the moment, And so that remains our major issue.’
Professor Kelly asked: ‘So why do we have vaccination programs? Well, fundamentally because they save lives by preventing people from becoming seriously ill, they ensure our hospitals’ intensive care units don’t become overwhelmed resulting in unnecessary death, and they allow us to live with greater freedoms and more certainty,’ he said.
‘We’ve also built up the capacity of our public health systems in the last 18 months, and ensured we have the resources to quickly test, trace and isolate people who have contracted, or are suspected of having contracted the disease.
‘Despite this, the death rate from COVID-19 is increasing globally. More people have died this year than the whole of last year already. We’re likely to be living with COVID-19 for many years to come.
‘So what’s the key now to slowing the spread of COVID-19 and reducing its ability to mutate and thrive? We know the answer, it’s vaccination. Widespread vaccination will give Australians more certainty to plan for the future and alleviate some of the stress and anxiety that uncertainty brings.
‘Importantly, every person who is vaccinated will be helping to protect themselves, their family, friends and community, and give us a greater hope of returning to a sense of normality,’ Professor Kelly said.
He also said Australia will learn many lessons from our COVID-19 response, including how to vaccinate our population in the next pandemic ‘which we know will occur at some time, in a more business as usual way’. But he added ‘the way we are rolling out the COVID-19 vaccines at the moment is absolutely the right approach for today.’
The global COVID challenge
Jane Halton, former Secretary of the Department of Health and adviser to government on our COVID-19 response, spoke of the challenges of vaccinating the world in the current COVID-19 environment.
She compared the present response with how the world tackled the Ebola outbreak in West Africa from 2014 to 2016.
‘We were particularly frustrated at the time by the fact there were candidate vaccines for Ebola sitting on shelves that weren’t able to be deployed because they hadn’t been taken all the way through to development,’ Ms Halton said.
‘It’s worth reminding ourselves, as we sit here talking about how best to immunise our population, that the world had never before developed an effective coronavirus vaccine.’
Significant investment has made all the difference this time around.
‘And we all now know, in what is undoubtedly a fantastic achievement for science and collaboration with industry, in a little over 310 days we actually got our first successful vaccine.’
But Jane Halton warns there is still a long way to go, with no end to the crisis in sight. She believes the reported 182 million cases to date globally and 3.9 million deaths are a significant underestimate of the true picture ‘and these numbers will get worse before they get better.’
She said that opening the world up to international travel again will rely on global vaccine supply and the urgent need for 11 billion doses, to provide two shots to fully vaccinate six billion people across the world, ‘and then we have to get it into people’s arms,’ Ms Halton said.
Dr Saad Omer, from Yale University’s Institute for Global Health, urged all world leaders and governments to continue to prioritise people who are identified as being at the highest risk.
‘Having access to vaccines is a privilege in this world and the only way we can be worthy of this privilege is by paying it forward. And the only way to pay it forward is to advocate for global vaccine equity. Otherwise, unfortunately, we will be judged really harshly by history,’ Dr Omer said.