Most older Aussies need to be vaccinated before nation reopens

At least 75 per cent of Australians over 70 will need to be fully vaccinated in order to end COVID-19 lockdowns and reopen state and international borders.

Currently, 72.9 per cent of people over 70 have received a single jab.

A lower proportion of younger Australians will also need to be fully vaccinated if the nation is to move from phase one to phase two of the national cabinet’s plan to reopen Australia.

Under the four-phase plan, phase two – or the post-vaccination stage – would see fewer restrictions on vaccinated residents and lockdowns would occur only in extreme circumstances.

The estimates coincide with the launch of a ‘graphic’ new ad campaign featuring a young woman in hospital gasping for breath.

Shadow education minister Tanya Plibersek has blasted the government for using a young person sick with the virus who, in reality, would not yet be eligible for a vaccine.

She also criticised the government for ‘scaring’ Australians into getting vaccinated, even though there aren’t enough doses in the country to facilitate the call.

“You’d think with that kind of experience in that kind of track record, they’d do a better job, and one of the problems with advertising campaigns and perhaps the reason it’s taken so long is if you encourage people to go and get vaccinated, you’ve got to have enough of the vaccine available, and we simply haven’t,” she told Sunrise.

Health Minister Greg Hunt believes Australians will be more forgiving.

“Australians are getting vaccinated and they realise it takes some time,” he told The Sunday Age and The Sun-Herald.

“Opening up is likely to be a graduated staircase, a series of steps. The message is clear – we have to ease off carefully and open up carefully.

Read: What to do after you receive your COVID-19 vaccination

“Access to vaccines for the 40-59 group is about to open up significantly. And then we have a big population, about 7 million people, between 20 and 40 years of age and then about 1.3 million people between 16 and 20.”

The government has asked the Doherty Institute to provide modelling on vaccination targets which are expected by the end of July.

One minister “guessed” the required vaccination rates could actually be 80 per cent for vulnerable groups and over-70s, then 70 per cent and 60 per cent for lower-risk groups.

Deakin University epidemiology chair Catherine Bennett says all Australians, including older age groups scared off by reports of blood clots caused by the AstraZeneca shots but who’ve already had one jab, should now get fully vaccinated and not wait for a Pfizer jab.

“For people who have had their AstraZeneca jab, the first jab … the risk goes way down … it gets even more rare on your second jab,” she told 6PR’s Gary Adshead.

“At the end of the day, this is about trying to protect people from serious illness and death from COVID.

“The advice is have your second dose of AstraZeneca, it is incredibly unlikely now that you would have a reaction.

“The risk of the illness itself, particularly serious illness, drops dramatically when you have that second dose.”

Doherty Institute professor Sharon Lewin said higher vaccination targets for older Australians “makes a lot of sense” and once hit, may be enough for Australia to move into the second phase.

The two reasons for vaccination, says the professor, is to limit transmission, achieve herd immunity, protect the vulnerable and stop people getting sick.

“But the most important thing is protecting those most vulnerable, with very high vaccination rates of people over 60,” she said.

“I think that achieving that target alone could allow for movement between the phases. I don’t think it’s as simple as just getting to 60 per cent across the whole population. I do think that the age-adjusted uptake of vaccination could well inform these phases.”

Read: We’re bottom of the (OECD) class in vaccination rates

To help ramp up vaccination numbers, older residents in NSW are being urged to bring forward their second AstraZeneca vaccine, especially as Sydney’s COVID-19 outbreak worsens.

The AstraZeneca vaccine recommended for over-60s requires two doses, generally to be given 12 weeks apart.

NSW chief health officer Kerry Chant now says NSW health authorities “particularly want to focus on the elderly” getting their second dose earlier.

“We are recommending that while the interval was three months, at this time, because the case numbers are high, we want people to come forward and get vaccinated around that six-week mark,” said Dr Chant.

“We know that for the Delta variant you need the two doses, so by calling people to get a second dose, we might sacrifice a bit of long-term protection, but we’re making sure you’re protected earlier.

“We know the vaccines are very effective at preventing illness and death and we know the elderly are most vulnerable. So please make that appointment.”

The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) says AstraZeneca vaccines should be given 12 weeks apart, but that can be shortened to as little as four weeks under extenuating circumstances.

Australian Medical Association (AMA) president Omar Khorshid says the conflicting advice could be contributing to people’s vaccine hesitancy.

“Even though it is annoying for GPs and confusing for the public, [the advice] recognises the risk in Sydney and the absolutely critical thing with Delta is to have that second dose,” he said.

University of NSW infectious diseases expert Mary-Louise McLaws said that while the vaccine would not be as effective if the second dose was given within the 12-week period “you’re still well protected from death and hospitalisation”.

For those who choose the have their second dose in less than 12 weeks, a third booster shot would likely be required in around six to eight months to make up for any drop in immunity.

Read: Experts say annual COVID vaccinations will be the new normal

She reiterated that it was safe for older Australians to have the second jab six weeks after the first but reminded them to be mindful of the two-week lag required for full protection.

“So just because you’ve had the second dose at six or eight weeks, or 12, you’ve still got to act as if you’re not protected for two more weeks,” she said.

Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said choosing to have the second dose in under 12 weeks was an “issue of risk versus benefit”.

“The longer you wait for that second dose at 12 weeks seems to be the optimal time to get that for longer-term protection. That remains the national advice,” he said.

“In Sydney right now, we need to weigh up immediate protection versus longer-term protection, so the immediate protection that would come from earlier dose would make sense.”

Will you rush your second dose to satisfy vaccination numbers needed to reopen the country? How do you assess the risk versus reward of having your second dose more quickly? Why not share your opinions in the comments section below?

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Written by Leon Della Bosca

Leon Della Bosca has worked in publishing and media in one form or another for around 25 years. He's a voracious reader, word spinner and art, writing, design, painting, drawing, travel and photography enthusiast. You'll often find him roaming through galleries or exploring the streets of his beloved Melbourne and surrounding suburbs, sketchpad or notebook in hand, smiling.