Hope for normality as Pfizer’s Covid vaccine rolled out to priority groups across Australia | Health

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Coronavirus vaccines are being rolled out across Australia in what experts says marks the start of the “final phase of the pandemic”.

Those at the highest risk of infection, including quarantine and health hotel workers, frontline health staff and airport and port workers, were the first to receive it on Monday.

Epidemiologist with Victoria’s La Trobe University, Associate Prof Hassan Vally, described the rollout as “Australia’s official entry into the final phase of the pandemic”.

“As we roll out the vaccines, we start to reduce the threat Covid-19 poses to the community, which means we can more confidently transition towards post-pandemic life,” Vally said.

“Although there is still a lot of work to do and we have to be patient, the vaccination of frontline workers and the most vulnerable in the community will be a game changer. Crucially, the vaccination of quarantine workers will not only make escapes from hotels less likely, but if they do occur, as vulnerable populations get vaccinated, the implications of any escapes are reduced.

“This hopefully means that there will be less of a need for lockdowns in Australia in the future.”

The federal health minister, Greg Hunt, said although the rollout was “an extraordinary moment for our country”, Covid-safe practices such as social distancing and other hygiene measures would be “with us for a long while”. This is because it is yet to be determined how long protection from the vaccine lasts, whether booster shots will be needed, and how effective the vaccine is at preventing transmission, rather than just the person vaccinated developing symptoms.

“Our goal is to get to a situation where, if we can protect [the] population against serious illness, hospitalisation and death … we will have the ability to operate and address cases without having to bring down lockdowns,” Hunt said.

The Pfizer vaccine was the first Covid-19 vaccine to receive approval for use in Australia by the Therapeutic Goods Administration and is the first of the vaccine candidates being administered. Two doses of the vaccine will be provided at least three weeks apart. The AstraZeneca vaccine has also been approved, but the distribution of this vaccine will begin in March.

Prof Rhonda Stuart, who is the medical director of Monash Health’s department of infection prevention and epidemiology in Victoria, was among the first people to receive the vaccine in Australia.

“It’s 14 months since we saw the first patient,” Stuart said. “So it’s amazing that we’ve got to this stage where we can be vaccinating people to protect ourselves against it.”

She said it was important people know it was normal to experience some mild or moderate side effects, such as chills and fever. Such symptoms were a good sign, Stuart said, because they showed the body was responding to the vaccine and it was working.

People are monitored for 15 minutes after receiving the vaccine so any rare but serious side effects, such as allergic reaction, are caught and treated.

Stuart said the vaccine did not contain live Covid-19 so it could not give you the virus. It can not lead to someone becoming contagious with the virus. “It’s really important to remind and reassure people that at no point is a vaccine actually giving you Covid,” Stuart said.

Nurses walk into the Covid-19 vaccination wing of Gold Coast University Hospital on Monday.
Nurses walk into the Covid-19 vaccination wing of Gold Coast University Hospital on Monday. Photograph: Glenn Hunt/Getty Images

Hospital vaccination hubs throughout Australia will deliver the vaccine to public sector residential aged care patients and workers, with the commonwealth responsible for providing the vaccine to the private sector aged care and disability sectors. GP clinics will not provide the vaccine until later stages of the rollout.

In New South Wales, three vaccination hubs opened on Monday morning at Liverpool, Royal Prince Alfred and Westmead hospitals. A cleaner working in the hotel quarantine system was the first person to get the Pfizer vaccine in that state. The NSW premier, Gladys Berejiklian, said those receiving the vaccines first “have literally put their own health on the line every day”.

“It’s easy for us to forget that,” she said. “But I was just so overjoyed and overwhelmed that those who have protected all of us and welcomed home Australians were the first ones to get the jab. I can’t wait for when it’s my turn, when the AstraZeneca vaccine arrives, and I really hope that people take up the opportunity.

“It was enormous relief for me personally, because it is definitely a new phase in fighting Covid.”

NSW police officer Lachlan Pritchard receives the Pfizer vaccine at the Royal Prince Alfred hospital vaccination hub in Sydney on Monday.
NSW police officer Lachlan Pritchard receives the Pfizer vaccine at the Royal Prince Alfred hospital vaccination hub in Sydney on Monday. Photograph: Toby Zerna/AP

In Queensland, the chief health officer, Jeannette Young, said: “The plan is to vaccinate every single adult in Queensland 18 years and over as quickly as we can.” Director of infectious diseases and immunology at Gold Coast University Hospital, Dr John Gerrard , along with registered nurse Zoe Park were among the first group to be vaccinated in that state.

“They were key right from the start, they had the first positive cases here in Queensland, amongst the first positive cases in Australia,” Young said. “They were managed beautifully and we did not get an outbreak from those first cases.”

The Covid vaccine is currently voluntary, universal and free. If people choose not to have a Covid-19 vaccine, this will not affect their family’s eligibility for family tax benefit part A or childcare fee assistance, which only includes National Immunisation Program vaccines for people aged younger than 20.

But the federal government has warned that in the future, vaccination might become a requirement for travel to certain destinations or for people working in certain high-risk workplaces. If this becomes the case, there will be exemptions in place for people who are unable to be vaccinated.

Approximately 1.4 million quarantine and border workers; frontline staff in facilities such as hospital emergency departments, respiratory wards, intensive care units and high-dependency units; laboratory staff handling potentially infectious material; ambulance workers and paramedics; and aged care and disability care staff and residents are being vaccinated in the first phase.

Once this is complete, the second part of the first rollout phase will begin, with vaccinations going to elderly adults aged 70 and above, as well as other healthcare workers, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people over 55 and adults with an underlying medical condition, including those with a disability. Critical and high-risk workers in defence, police, fire, emergency services and meat processing will also be included in this group.

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