A handful of pharmacies will begin administering the AZ jab as part of a “pilot” program, but the focus on the GP network and mass centres continues
More than 1,200 community pharmacies put their hand up to join the COVID-19 vaccine rollout in NSW, but only 22 in regional and rural areas have been accepted to start vaccinating so far.
The first pharmacies will administer the COVID-19 vaccine from mid-July for people aged 60 and over, in what the NSW government has termed a “pilot program”.
These pharmacies will be located where access to a GP or vaccine clinic is more limited due to geography, including regional towns such as Gulgong, Narromine, Walcha, Dungog, Dunedoo and Merriwa.
Premier Gladys Berejiklian said on Thursday that community pharmacists “already have an important role” in Australia’s vaccination program, administering vaccines including the yearly flu jab.
“We know that some of these communities have limited local access to general practitioner services and having these pharmacies involved will assist with the phased rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine to these communities,” Ms Berejiklian said.
“This is a vital step to help ensure as many people in NSW as possible receive their COVID-19 vaccination as soon as possible.”
It is expected additional pharmacies will join the COVID-19 vaccination program in the future, the government added.
On the same day, Ms Berejiklian also announced that the NSW government will be establishing two new mass vaccination centres as well as a large clinic in the Sydney CBD.
These are in addition to the hub at Sydney Olympic Park, and a second mass vaccination centre in the Hunter Region due to open within weeks.
The sites will complement the GP network, “which has and will continue to deliver the majority of COVID-19 vaccines across NSW” said the state government.
PSA NSW Branch President, Chelsea Felkai, said the 22 community pharmacies are a start but not nearly enough.
“In the wake of Sydney’s most recent lockdowns, some NSW pharmacists will finally be able to help protect their communities by vaccinating against this deadly disease,” said Ms Felkai.
“Whilst this is a welcomed outcome for those in some regional NSW communities, it still misses the mark, especially during a time where Sydney is subjected to the longest lockdown we have seen in a year.
“Pharmacists should also be administering all available vaccines in order to reach a greater proportion of the population.
“While we need to look after our rural and remote communities, there is no plan for the expansion of this so-called ‘pilot’,” said Ms Felkai.
“We have been given every excuse for not being included in the rollout to date – from difficulties in administration to cold chain and supply issues – this can no longer be tolerated. This is not about funding, politics or protecting turf. This is a pandemic.
“We desperately need a patient-centric approach that puts the community first, but it is apparent that the NSW Government’s approach to the rollout does not support this.
“The reality is that Australia will not reach the 40 million administrations needed to fully vaccinate Australia’s adult population until late September 2022, therefore, access can no longer be restricted solely through GPs, respiratory clinics and vaccination hubs.”
The number of activated NSW pharmacies is only slightly higher than the eight out of more than 800 pharmacies that have been called up to vaccinate for COVID-19 in Victoria.
A further seven outer suburban locations have been identified by the Victorian Department of Health as “areas of need”, and the Commonwealth has been requested to activate these locations – however this is still under consideration.
Anthony Tassone, president of the Pharmacy Guild’s Victorian branch, criticised the government’s vaccine “stroll out”.
“Whatever way you look at it, this vaccine stroll out hasn’t achieved a pass mark and eight out of 800 pharmacies activated is an abysmal indictment on overlooking a ready, willing and capable workforce and critical primary healthcare infrastructure that is ready to take the field and help the team win,” he told AJP.
“It really is time to turn around and get the almost 4,000 pharmacies across Australia deemed suitable activated ready to receive the incoming shipments of mRNA vaccine stock to help get Australia vaccinated and protected.”
The Victorian Government has placed the decision squarely in the hands of the Commonwealth.
A Victorian Department of Health spokesperson told AJP that the state “supports an ongoing and increasing role for community pharmacies in the Australian Government’s COVID-19 vaccination program”.
“Victoria supports the central role of primary care, including general practice, Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations, and community pharmacy in the Australian Government’s COVID-19 vaccination program,” they said.
However the spokesperson added: “The Australian Government is responsible for selecting and activating the pharmacies that will join the vaccine rollout.
“The Victorian Government has provided information to the Australian Government to assist in their selection of community pharmacies for potential inclusion in the national COVID-19 vaccine rollout.
“In addition, pharmacists and pharmacy students are being actively recruited and trained to prepare and deliver COVID-19 vaccines at state-run vaccination centres, as part of Victoria’s expanded COVID-19 vaccination workforce. ”
Pharmacy Guild national president Trent Twomey has lambasted the Federal Government for failing to broadly utilise community pharmacies in its strategy.
With more than 3,900 pharmacies having been approved by to the Commonwealth to participate in the program, Mr Twomey said it was time for them to be activated, regardless of where they are, rather than the current approach of using pharmacy to fill gaps in rural and regional vaccination availability.
In Queensland, 161 rural and regional pharmacies have so far been invited to participate in the rollout.
All pharmacies who applied in the Northern Territory have been offered an invitation, Mr Twomey told AJP in late June.
In Western Australia, pharmacies graded at MM 4 and above have been invited while in South Australia, pharmacies MM 2 and above have been invited.
Tasmanian community pharmacies in regional areas have been given the thumbs up to join the rollout but the selection process for which pharmacies these will be continues.
In the ACT, no pharmacies have yet commenced administering COVID-19 vaccines as all ACT pharmacies are in MM 1 areas.
While urban community pharmacies have been rebuffed, mainstream media reported on Friday that the NSW government intends to use student dentists, nurses, podiatrists and speech pathologists to administer COVID-19 vaccines to bolster staffing levels as it expands its network of vaccine hubs.
“Why don’t we use our already qualified vaccinating health professionals first? It makes more sense to me to include more pharmacists in the roll-out Australia-wide,” one community pharmacist commented on Twitter.