Changes to the vaccine rollout will see hospital pharmacists in crucial roles expanding vaccine hubs
National Cabinet met on Thursday to discuss issues including the recalibration of the COVID-19 vaccine program, as well as reducing flights to and from high-risk countries.
At a Canberra press conference Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that Cabinet had agreed to use the Pfizer vaccine for those aged under 50, with a few agreed exceptions, until general availability later in the year as supply increases.
The Government plans to ensure access to State and Territory Pfizer clinics for all eligible under-50s in Phases 1A and 1B, and progressively implement the expansion of State Pfizer Clinics to ensure distribution to these people.
The AstraZeneca vaccine, meanwhile, will be offered to those aged 50 and over, and access to it will be brought forward to all people aged 50 and over from 17 May – or earlier, if supply is available. Access from state-run clinics and respiratory clinics is expected from 3 May.
Additional doses will also be provided to Primary Care sites.
Secretary of the Department of Health Professor Brendan Murphy told reporters that the changes were largely driven by Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) advice regarding thrombosis with thrombocytopenia, a “rare but significant” adverse event associated with COVID-19 vaccination.
“ATAGI advice to recall, is that Pfizer is now the preferred vaccine for those under 50,” he said.
“So that means that we really have two vaccines divided by age with some exceptions. A bit like how we have two flu vaccines. One group for 65 and over, and one group for under 65. So that’s made a big, significant impact on our program as we have previously outlined.
“The other principle is we that must continue our course to protect the most vulnerable to severe COVID as soon as possible and our goal to protect them by the middle of the year is unchanged.”
Professor Murphy said that the program needed to be planned to maximally use the available doses of vaccine.
“We need to ensure, because of this new age split that a range of people under 50 who are eligible at the moment, such as aged care workers, disability care workers, those people with underlying chronic medical conditions, emergency service workers and broader healthcare workers from all settings, can have access to Pfizer at the state Pfizer clinic,” he said.
“They will open up all of their state Pfizer clinics equally to every single Australian currently eligible, it’s only in those groups in 1A and 1B at the moment to access Pfizer in those Pfizer clinics.
“That increased demand on the Pfizer clinics to cover that whole population essentially under 50 will require an expansion in those Pfizer clinics in the states. That will need to expand both in geography and size, depending on the available Pfizer doses which are coming in and which we hope to increase in coming weeks.”
As states and territories will no longer be providing AstraZeneca to under-50s, more doses of this vaccine will be freed up for primary care sites.
The Society of Hospital Pharmacists of Australia commended the National Cabinet on the recalibration, saying it would see hospital pharmacists in “crucial” roles expanding the state government hubs in strategic and high-impact locations.
Chief Executive Kristin Michaels said the changes will see the full, complementary strengths of Australia’s acute and primary health care sectors utilised symbiotically to increase vaccination rates.
“The COVID-19 vaccine roll-out is incredibly complex in scale and scope and we welcome the flexibility of government and health professionals in making these important changes in response to new safety data,” she said.
“We reiterate our support for the Government’s view that GP clinics remain the most vital COVID-19 vaccine access point for the wider Australian community, and support this week’s proposal by the Pharmacy Guild of Australia to bring forward the ability for community pharmacies in non-metropolitan areas with limited or no GP access to become vaccine hubs for these communities.
“By expanding access across the board – from large metropolitan hubs to GP clinics – the recalibrated strategy will harness the responsiveness of pharmacists to the needs of the populations they serve, wherever they may live.”
Ms Michaels said hospital pharmacists continue to be instrumental in the establishment and operation of state-run vaccination clinics across the country, ensuring vaccine doses are appropriately handled and prepared according to strict protocols.
“We will continue to support our members as they work with their hospital colleagues to upscale this crucial arm of Australia’s vaccine strategy, with some state-run clinics having the capacity to administer thousands of doses each day.
“Equally important is the extensive reach of GP clinics and community pharmacies, and it is inspiring to see all pharmacists stepping up to the challenge with a singular focus on safe, robust herd immunity.”