A north Queensland doctor is warning he has “no faith” that regional Australia will see a mass distribution of the Pfizer vaccine.
The regional COVID-19 vaccine rollout has been thrown into turmoil by the Federal Government’s changed medical advice.
Last night, Prime Minister Scott Morrison told the country the AstraZeneca vaccine would no longer be recommended to people under 50 years old.
The vaccine will still be available to those eligible, but recipients will be warned of the risk of blood-clotting.
It comes as Queensland’s Chief Health Officer Jeannette Young announced every region across the state would be set up with a Pfizer vaccine hub, in light of the new TGA storage requirements.
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said the AstraZeneca vaccine would continue to be administered in the Torres Strait due to the high rates of COVID-19 in nearby Papua New Guinea.
Michael Clements, a Townsville-based general practitioner and chair of Northern Australia Primary Health Limited, said he believed the announcement would likely delay the regional rollout even further.
“This setback is really going to generate more hesitancy and more of those conversations,” Dr Clements said.
“Sadly, that means the timeline to get Australia vaccinated and back on track and integrated into the international community is going to be stretched out for another six months, or even a year.
“We’re going to be locked down again, wearing masks again, and we’re going to have cancelled holidays, and we’re going to be missing out on seeing our loved ones.”
Dr Clements said the logistics of delivering more Pfizer vaccines would amplify the delay.
“It could be well into next year before Pfizer will have anywhere near the doses that we might need,” he said.
The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) has changed its storage and transportation requirements on the vaccine.
While longer term storage at temperatures between -90C to -60°C is still required for unopened vials, the TGA has approved storage and transportation at domestic freezer temperatures (-25°C to -15°C) for up to two weeks.
Nine hundred kilometres west, Mount Isa general practitioner Michael Mbaogu has been administering the AstraZeneca vaccine to eligible residents of north-west Queensland.
Dr Mbaogu said rural and remote facilities would need more government support to administer the Pfizer vaccine.
“We would need support to acquire that particular type of vaccine freezer.”
However, Dr Mbaogu said it would still be possible without the technology, if there was a system where vaccines were frequently delivered to the clinic.
“I’m aware you can store the Pfizer vaccine in a regular vaccine fridge for up to 72 hours, so we can do that,” he said.
“If there is an arrangement to ship the vaccines to us, that would give us at least three days to use them; that is also workable.”
The Rural Doctors’ Association of Australia (RDAA) met with Deputy Chief Medical Officer Michael Kidd and Federal Health Department staff on Friday morning to discuss the regional rollout.
RDAA CEO Peta Rutherford said they had been assured access for rural areas would be a key point of discussion with states.
However, she said delivery of the vaccine would need to be re-thought in places like Queensland.
She said that in some states, vaccination hubs were not accessible to rural and remote areas.
“If they were able to create some hubs in places more inland —Toowoomba, Mount Isa — it can be distributed.
“Once [the Pfizer vaccine] is basically defrosted, for lack of a better word, it can be used within five days so with some good planning and some good co-ordination, we could actually do it.”
Ms Rutherford said it was essential teams of doctors and nurses, trained in delivering the Pfizer vaccine, were in place and able to travel to remote and rural communities
With winter approaching, she said finding a solution was especially urgent.
“With our grey nomad season about to commence, and with school holidays, there’s a lot of movement across state borders,” Ms Rutherford said.
“We need to make sure that these frontline healthcare workers are given the same support and provision as frontline healthcare workers in the city.”
On the Darling Downs, Indigenous not-for-profit Carbal Medical Services is administrating a large proportion of Toowoomba’s vaccines.
CEO Brian Hewitt said increasing the supply of alternative vaccines was the Federal Government’s best option to maintain confidence in the rollout.
“We’re talking about a very, very rare possibility of a reaction to this vaccine – very rare compared to all other medicines and vaccines that are distributed,” Mr Hewitt said.
“Any concern in the current climate is likely to deter people from getting the vaccine, and that would be a far worse outcome than any side effects to any medication.”
Mr Hewitt said the Pfizer vaccine would not be a viable alternative for all communities.
“Outside of hospital situations, it’s very difficult to store and keep supplies of that for any length of time,” he said.
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