Vaccinate hotspots, says AMA, as poll shows support for teacher jabs

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Vaccination teams could be sent to “hotspot” suburbs with significant coronavirus outbreaks, health experts say, with fears that much of Melbourne’s north and west is under-vaccinated and at risk.

The Australian Medical Association’s Victorian office says that, along with the vaccination of essential workers in areas of the state where there have been outbreaks, residents in areas with high COVID-19 case numbers should also be immunised.

The vaccine centre at the Al-Taqwa College on Friday.Credit:Luis Enrique Ascui

“When we realise there is a problem in, say, Altona, we should stop sending vaccines to Murrumbeena or other … areas,” the association’s Victorian president Roderick McRae said.

Melbourne’s west has the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rate in Victoria according to national data released this week, with many of the suburbs that were hardest hit by last year’s coronavirus outbreaks recording vaccination rates well below the national average. The city’s north-west is also below the average for vaccine first doses.

Victoria this week went from zero new cases to another lockdown in just over a day, after a teacher at Al-Taqwa College in Truganina and her husband, who live in the western suburbs, tested positive.

New polling shows that most people believe there is an urgent need to give teachers access to vaccines to reduce the risk of the virus spreading in school communities.

Victorian AMA president Roderick McRae.Credit:Joe Armao

Dr McRae commended the move by the Victorian Department of Health to send a mobile vaccination group to Al-Taqwa College this week. “You swing your vaccines to an area of need with a view to minimising the spread,” he said.

“The rationale is to minimise disease in individuals, and their ability to transmit to the next person, who could be their partner or their mother or their child,” said Dr McRae.

Health minister Martin Foley, in response to questioning on whether specific areas should be targeted for vaccination, said the state’s focus was on the supply of the right vaccines.

“Our biggest problem is not demand,” Mr Foley said. “We have people who are doctor shopping to try and get access to vaccines. Our biggest problem continues to be supply.”

By Thursday, 21.38 per cent of Australians aged over 16 had been given both doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, and 43.03 per cent had received their first dose. On July 1, 7.92 per cent of Australians aged over 16 were fully vaccinated.

Anita Munoz, chair of the Victorian faculty of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, said the idea of targeting residents in localised “hotspot” areas for vaccines was not the answer to getting the nation immunised swiftly and logically.

“This really speaks to the ongoing issue of supply for all vaccines; the solution to this is simply steady and reliable supply,” said Dr Munoz, who has immunised many patients with both the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines at her practice in Melbourne’s CBD.

There have been spikes in vaccine demand during outbreaks and lockdowns, but it was crucial that what was already a daunting logistical exercise was not further complicated. “We need the supply to be assured and steady,” she said.

Targeting vaccinations to hotspot areas also risked sowing the seeds of social discontent, she said. “Anything that adds complexity and confusion and community resentment needs to be avoided. We need to secure a steady supply so we don’t have to make decisions about diverting vaccines from one local government area to another. That idea does not bode well.”

Epidemiologist and public health medicine specialist Tony Blakely, from the University of Melbourne, said essential workers needed to be vaccinated first, “regardless of age, in suburbs with a high risk of COVID”. Next should be essential workers in all areas of the state who had jobs that brought them into contact with multiple people daily. “Third, we go to non-essential workers in the suburbs at risk. Fourth, we vaccinate everyone else. But the third and fourth steps may not be necessary – it may be better to just vaccinate whomever you can, quickest.”

Meanwhile, fresh polling commissioned by the Australian Education Union found that four in five Australians believe it is critical to prioritise teachers for vaccination against COVID-19, with a poll ranking them ahead of essential retail workers, transport, warehousing and construction.

Teachers at two of the largest schools west of Melbourne have been infected in recent weeks, forcing thousands of other staff, students and their families into 14-day isolation. More than 20 teachers and students from Bacchus Marsh Grammar and several from Trinity Grammar were infected with the Delta variant that drove the state into its fifth lockdown last month.

In an online poll conducted between July 28 and August 1 by Essential, 79 per cent of respondents replied that, thinking about the safety and welfare of Australians, it was either extremely important or very important that teachers got vaccine priority.

Other frontline worker categories that received stronger support for vaccination, in the survey of 1057 people, have already been prioritised. “There is no longer any excuse to delay,” Australian Education Union Victorian branch president Meredith Peace said. “The federal government must prioritise teachers, education support staff and principals for COVID-19 vaccination.“

A small number of non-government schools have already taken it upon themselves to help their staff get vaccinated. Teaching staff at Fintona Girls’ School in Balwyn were vaccinated in May when a local GP clinic offered them Astra-Zeneca doses at risk of expiring due to slow take-up.

Fintona principal Rachael Falloon said almost 100 per cent of staff who were eligible accepted the offer. She said there was a strong case for vaccinating teachers.

“I understand that we don’t fit the current criteria of frontline workers,” Ms Falloon said, “but we are interacting with hundreds of people every day in a setting that it has been acknowledged we can’t keep to the density limits because it’s not practical in a school.”

A department of health spokesperson said eligible teachers were encouraged to get vaccinated at one of the 50 state-run vaccination clinics across Victoria or through Commonwealth providers, such as GPs and pharmacists.

Vaccines at state-run clinics are available to people aged 40 and older, unless they fall into eligible categories such as disability and aged care workers or healthcare employees.

There are no precise figures on how many Victorian teachers are aged under 40, but the department of education’s 2020 annual report shows about 31 per cent are aged 34 or younger.

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