The countdown is on for the first person in Australia to get the COVID-19 jab, with the first shipment of the Pfizer vaccine touching down in the country this week.
But how will you know when it’s your turn to get the jab, whether it will be mandatory for some people, and why there is a gap before the vaccine starts being rolled out?
Here’s the latest on what we know right now.
Will all aged care workers and residents get the Pfizer jab?
As we know, the government has outlined four specific groups of people who will be part of the first phase of its rollout strategy, including aged care and disability staff and residents.
Earlier this month, Health Department Secretary Brendan Murphy said the government would target the Pfizer vaccine to those groups – currently there are only enough doses for 10 million Australians.
But Minister for Aged Care Services Richard Colbeck today revealed some aged care workers and residents would instead get AstraZeneca’s jab.
“That’ll depend on availability and in some circumstances, location,” Senator Colbeck said.
“Everyone will be offered a vaccine, both vaccines are safe and they work and that’s the important thing for us to ensure everyone has the availability of a vaccine that is safe and has the appropriate efficacy.”
Should people over 65 get the AstraZeneca vaccine?
This has been a contentious topic.
When it approved the AstraZeneca vaccine this week, the national medical regulator said there would be no upper age limit for the vaccine (with the lower limit being the age of 18).
The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) said while people over the age of 65 “demonstrated a strong immune response” to the vaccine, there weren’t enough people infected by COVID-19 in clinical trials to determine the overall efficacy of the jab for that age group.
As a result, the TGA said the decision to vaccinate Australians over 65 should be decided on a “case-by-case basis”.
But the head of the TGA, John Skerritt, said that all came down to a discussion about the individual person, while stressing the vaccine was recommended for use in all ages.
“The issue about old people for any medicine or any vaccine or indeed any surgical procedure is look at what doctors call futility,” Professor Skerritt said on Tuesday.
“If someone only has a few weeks to live, you don’t give them a hip replacement and you may not give them a vaccine or medicine.”
How will I know when it’s my turn to get the vaccine?
The vaccine rollout is being broken down into five phases that spell out different groups in order of priority (and if you’re curious, the ABC’s Story Lab team has put together a calculator that determines which phase you’re likely in).
Where you are in the queue depends on a few factors, like your age, job or underlying medical conditions but, in essence, the people the government thinks need to be protected the most will get the jab first.
Those people will start receiving the jab from Monday, with NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian announcing 35,000 frontline workers in the state will receive the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine over a period of three weeks.
How CSL plans to make 1 million vaccines a week
When millions of Australians roll up their sleeve to get a locally made vaccine, the shot itself may only take a couple of seconds, but it will have been three months in the making.
If you are in one of the priority phases, you will be contacted through your employer or residence, and in some cases, a guardian or carer will be contacted on your behalf.
As the rollout moves into the broader phases, GPs and pharmacists will start administering the AstraZeneca jab – they can’t hand out the Pfizer vaccine as it needs to be stored in Antarctic temperatures, and requires special cold-chain storage facilities.
At this point, it’s likely your GP will let you know when it’s your turn, and there will also be a range of public health information available across social media, television and print publications.
But we’re expecting the government to have more detail on this later this week.
Will anyone be forced to get the vaccine?
While the government hasn’t ruled out making the jab compulsory for aged care workers in the future, at this stage they won’t be forced to.
Given the flu vaccine is mandatory for those workers already, some in the sector have raised questions about why the COVID-19 jab is being treated differently.
Senator Colbeck said it all came down to advice from Australia’s medical experts.
“The issue for us is understanding whether or not the vaccine prevents transmission which provides the barrier to the virus in the community transmitting via the workforce to residents,” he said.
But Senator Colbeck said the question of whether to force workers to get the coronavirus jab remained an “open question”, as authorities continue to monitor the vaccine rollout here and abroad.
Labor leader Anthony Albanese gave his strongest indication yet he believes vaccines should be compulsory for workers in aged care facilities.
“People who work in aged care now have to, like a whole range of professions, have to have inoculations against the flu,” he said on Wednesday.
“Common sense should apply here.”
What’s the deal with the gap between getting the vaccines and handing them out?
Federal Labor has also been critical of the time the government has taken to hand out the vaccines, saying the rollout should already be underway.
But Professor Skerritt defended the process, saying so-called “batch-testing” needs to occur before any doses are administered.
That’s when every batch of vaccines supplied to Australia is examined by the TGA – which either carries out a range of tests itself or reviews testing results from an international counterpart.
“There is a short period of time once the vaccine arrives that we check it’s arrived safely, that vials haven’t been broken, that it hasn’t got hot during the shipping – especially if it is sitting on an airport in Singapore or Dubai or somewhere or other – and we do what’s known as batch release,” Professor Skerritt told Channel 9 on Wednesday.
Does the vaccine expire?
AstraZeneca vaccines can be stored at normal refrigerated conditions for up to six months, whereas Pfizer has a shorter expiration timeframe.
“The first lot of doses from Pfizer have an expiry date of the end of May at this stage,” Professor Skerritt told Channel 9.
“I say ‘at this stage’ because one of the other things we don’t know, which we normally would know, is whether the medicine lasts three months, six months, 12 months, five years in the fridge, in the freezer.”
After the AstraZeneca jab is first opened, the TGA has recommended it be used within six hours at room temperature, or two days if it’s in a refrigerator.
But the Pfizer jab is more tricky, as it needs to be thawed out for use – and once that happens, it can’t be refrozen.
That means it has to be used within two hours at room temperature.
That’s prompted countries around the world to look at ways to minimise waste, but Professor Skerritt said he doesn’t think it’ll be an issue in Australia.
“You can imagine that if you’re vaccinating at a large healthcare facility, you’re going to have any number of healthcare workers you can tap on the shoulder if it’s five minutes to six and you still have one or two shots left,” he told Channel 9.
“I don’t think we’re going to be throwing out unused vaccine.”
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