‘We keep throwing vaccines out, I’d rather get them into arms’
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Doctors and pharmacists are seeing a surge in requests for COVID-19 vaccines ahead of the Christmas break amid concerns about higher rates of the virus and visiting vulnerable loved ones.
Indicators such as sewage monitoring, test positivity rates and hospital activity suggest the virus has been circulating at higher levels since the start of November.
Pharmacist Kevin Santos says bookings for the COVID-19 vaccine have tripled ahead of Christmas. Credit: Dion Georgopoulos
In September, the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation recommended a second dose of the vaccine this year for those over 75 and severely immunocompromised people – and asked those over 65 to consider it.
But while the additional shot is not recommended for younger people – with ATAGI citing the comparably less severe illness experienced by younger people – many have been rolling up their sleeves.
In Sydney’s inner west, Summer Hill pharmacist Kevin Santos said inquiries about COVID-19 vaccines had tripled in recent weeks.
The pharmacy also has a waitlist of people wanting to receive the new monovalent – or “XBB.1.5-containing” – vaccines, which are better targeted to current variants of the virus. The federal government has said these new vaccines will be available from this week.
Santos said many of the people seeking a vaccine were not being urged to by the latest advice but wanted to receive it anyway before travelling or visiting vulnerable family at Christmas.
“You’ve got younger people who are not in the ‘recommended’ category, but they see the amount of COVID in the community at the moment and know they will be meeting with elderly loved ones, so they want to do the right thing,” he said.
Santos said the recommendations had become confusing for the public to follow.
“The sad thing is, we keep throwing vaccines out. I’d rather get them into arms.”
Information provided by the federal government to pharmacies in its community pharmacy COVID-19 vaccination program stated the final doses of the Moderna bivalent vaccine ordered into Australia will expire on December 20.
For Curtis Ruhnau, a pharmacist in Emerton in Sydney’s outer west, the increase in appointments has been driven by people deciding to have a third or fourth shot who had put off getting boosters after their initial two doses.
“That’s probably over half of the people coming through now,” he said.
“In our area, people can struggle with health literacy, and there was a lot of misinformation about the vaccine – so they might not have felt a need earlier in the year. But I think we all now know someone who had COVID very recently.”
He said it was primarily older people who were overdue for a vaccine coming forward for shots, as well as younger people who were caring for someone with a higher risk of serious illness.
The federal Department of Health and Aged Care will release the latest data on COVID-19 vaccination, now published monthly, this week. The most recent data, published on November 8, showed an increase in appointments following ATAGI’s September advice.
Dr Fei Sim, a Perth pharmacist and national president of the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia, said pharmacies across the country were reporting an increase in vaccine appointments coming up to Christmas.
While she was aware of an increasing number of people asking for COVID-19 vaccines who did not meet the eligibility criteria, she said the society’s position was to follow ATAGI advice.
“Yes, we are not running out of vaccines, but the advice is based on balance,” she said, adding that the public should not forget about the importance of other measures, such as wearing a mask and staying home when sick, to protect the vulnerable.
Dr Rebekah Hoffman, NSW and ACT chair of the Royal Australian College of GPs, said local doctors were also seeing an increase in people, including those not yet eligible for another shot, asking when they could be vaccinated.
“They may be people who’ve had a negative experience with COVID, or have a loved one who’s had a bad experience, and they are wanting to know when they will be due,” she said.
A Health Department spokesperson reiterated ATAGI’s advice.
“If you have already had the recommended COVID-19 vaccine dose/s this year, you do not need to get, and should not get, another dose or re-vaccination with an XBB.1.5-containing vaccine,” they said.
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