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Australia’s rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine has been stymied by a combination of different factors including supply, distribution and vaccine hesitancy amongst the public. Today, Dr Melanie Cheng, on where Australia went wrong with its vaccine rollout.

Are Australians too complacent about Covid-19?

Read Transcript

Australia’s rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine has been stymied by a combination of different factors including supply, distribution and vaccine hesitancy amongst the public.

A recent survey found that nearly one in three Australians aren’t willing to get vaccinated because they’re unsure about the risks or don’t think it’s necessary.

Today, health columnist for The Saturday Paper Dr Melanie Cheng, on where Australia went wrong with its vaccine rollout and what the federal government needs to do to avoid a third wave.

 

Guest: Health columnist for The Saturday Paper Dr Melanie Cheng.

Read Transcript

[THEME MUSIC STARTS]

 

RUBY:

From *Schwartz Media* I’m Ruby Jones this is 7am.

 

Australia’s rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine has been stymied by a combination of different factors including supply, distribution and vaccine hesitancy amongst the public.

 

A recent survey found that nearly one in three Australians aren’t willing to get vaccinated because they’re unsure about the risks or don’t think it’s necessary.

 

Today, health columnist for The Saturday Paper Dr Melanie Cheng, on where Australia went wrong with its vaccine rollout… and what the federal government needs to do to avoid a third wave.

 

[THEME MUSIC ENDS]

 

RUBY:

So, Melanie, you're a doctor, a GP, and you're currently giving vaccines to your patients, is that right?

 

MELANIE:

That's correct, yeah.

 

RUBY:

What sorts of things are they saying to you about the process of getting vaccinated? What are you hearing?

 

MELANIE:

Well, I think this week I've probably had more conversations about the vaccine than ever before, actually. And what I'm noticing is a real confusion and uncertainty amongst a lot of them actually. They're confused about their eligibility. They're confused about where they would go to get the vaccine if they are indeed eligible. 

 

Another interesting thing that emerged, I think, amongst talking to some family members actually, is that there's this feeling that, well, I don't have much to gain from getting the vaccine right now. If I was to travel, then, of course, I would go out straight away and get the vaccine. But there's no chance of that any time soon. So I can afford to watch and wait and I can afford to see if any new side effects emerge. 

 

And so there's this I guess this is a real lack of urgency.

 

RUBY:

And where do you think this lack of urgency is coming from? Is this to do with what we’re hearing from the federal government? What are they saying?

 

MELANIE:

Well I think one thing that concerns me particularly is the kind of no rush, watch and wait approach.

 

Archival Tape -- Greg Hunt:

“Australians see in a global pandemic… A, they’re safe…”

 

MELANIE:

I've seen a few times now that when the representatives of the government are pushed on some deficiencies in the rollout, they will often go back to pointing out how lucky we are in Australia, how we don't have any Coronavirus and how we can take this watch and wait type approach. 

 

Archival Tape -- Greg Hunt:

“When we look at that world and we see a country that is safe and a country which has more people in employment than prior to the pandemic. We recognise that what we're doing in Australia is working and working in a way that virtually no other country in the world has matched…”

 

MELANIE:

We had some messaging from Greg Hunt about the AstraZeneca vaccine. And whilst he encouraged people to get vaccinated, he also pointed out that we would be getting a lot more of the MRNA vaccines towards the end of the year and that there would be enough for the whole population, which again, just reduced the real urgency I think.

 

That's really come to a head this week for me, especially in light of some of the things that we're seeing overseas. I guess for me, having followed the pandemic quite closely this past year and particularly the success of Taiwan, I was really quite shocked to see them having this quite severe and unprecedented outbreak in spite of, you know, up until now they're having a real gold standard kind of record on being able to contain the virus with really minimum restrictions in that country.

  

RUBY:

Mm, can you tell me more about what is happening in Taiwan? Because as you say, they were really seen as one of the success stories, globally, in the beginning of the pandemic. What went wrong? 

 

MELANIE:

Yeah. So Taiwan has a similar population size to Australia. They have twenty four million people there and like us, they are an island. And up until this year they had this amazing track record for keeping Covid under wraps.

 

Archival Tape -- Reporter:

“As covid-19 cases climbed around the world, once again, we take a closer look at the government that has most successfully tackled the pandemic in Asia, Taiwan.”

 

MELANIE:

They had less than a thousand cases. They had zero leaks from quarantine and they'd only had 12 deaths, which is really quite an amazing record. And I think a lot of that came down to their preparedness last year. 

 

Archival Tape -- Reporter:

“Some people have pointed out it’s island geography as one explanation, but take one look at the UK and that should dispel any myth of an island advantage.”

 

MELANIE:

So they were doing very well. And then on Friday, the 14th of May, the health authorities there announced that they had detected 29 new cases in the community.

 

Archival Tape -- Reporter:

“Taiwan's latest Covid outbreak is raising questions over how the virus managed to spread amid its gold standard approach.”

 

Archival Tape -- Reporter:

“Taiwan is stepping up it’s pandemic measures after a huge surge in Covid-19 cases.”

 

MELANIE:

And by Monday, they were having several hundreds of new daily infections. 

 

Archival Tape -- Reporter:

“Now the number of cases is rising sharply, reporting 335 local transmissions yesterday.” 

 

MELANIE:

So the virus had seeded in the community without them knowing about it. 

 

Archival Tape -- Reporter:

“They are being criticized for their slow rollout of the vaccine. And that seems to be linked to the fact that they maybe were a bit complacent because they just didn’t have the virus circulating in the numbers we saw in North America and Europe…” 

 

MELANIE:

And I guess the combination of seeing that and seeing my patients being reassured that we don't have Covid in Australia made me realise just how vulnerable we are here in Australia.

 

RUBY:

Mm and how worried do you think we should be about a situation like this unfolding in Australia? To what extent are we at risk of ending up in a similar situation that Taiwan is now experiencing?

 

MELANIE:

Well, I think that there are lots of parallels between these two countries, I think in particular with the complacency, because we have been relatively sheltered from the devastation of Coronavirus. It's not front of mind for us. We do know that, you know, in Australia, the compliance with things like QR codes has really gone down. I've seen it myself when I've been out in public spaces. And, you know, in recent times as well, I've had to plead with some patients to actually have Covid tests. They look me straight in the eye and say, I don't have Covid, even though they've got symptoms consistent with Covid. And they're just reassured simply that we don't have community transmission. And that's a really dangerous place to be because, you know, only earlier this month we had this mystery case in New South Wales. And if that man had not gone and got tested and assumed that he didn't have Covid, that could have been a, you know, super spreader or seeding event. 

 

We are forgetting a little bit. We are in a bit of a bubble at the moment. And so it's great because we can live a semi normal life again, but it's not necessarily sustainable.

 

We've had - unlike Taiwan's good record of leaks from quarantine, we've had 16 leaks from hotel quarantine just since November. And we've been lucky they haven't led to any significant spreading events. But, you know, if we do have a population that continues to think that we're not at risk, they don't get tested and we're not immunised, then, you know, there's no reason to think that we couldn't be Taiwan.

 

Because we are open, very open. We have very low rates of vaccination in a similar way to Taiwan. They have, I believe less than one percent of their population is actually currently vaccinated. 

 

And so I saw these real parallels and it made me really worried, especially as we know that we're coming into winter and winter is a particularly bad time for transmission of Coronavirus.

 

RUBY:

We’ll be back in a moment. 

 

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RUBY:

Melanie, we’ve been talking about your concerns about vaccine complacency, at a time when another outbreak of Covid-19 here in Australia is entirely possible. What is actually happening though. with the vaccine roll out at the moment, because it seems like there are still some problems with access?

 

MELANIE:

Yeah, so I think early on in the rollout there were these issues with supply. 

 

Archival Tape -- Reporter:

“Australians hopes of a Coronavirus vaccine early next year are being doused with the breakthrough Pfizer jab only being secured for one in five Australians and not available until 2021.”  

 

MELANIE:

Fortunately, in the past few months, the supply issues are less of an issue. And that relates to our ability to locally manufacture AstraZeneca. And also, I believe the Pfizer suppliers are more reliable and steady more recently.

 

So now we do have supply, but we're not having great uptake. And I think the main weakness in the system at the moment is really in being able to match the patient to a vaccine provider.

 

RUBY:

What do you mean by that?

 

MELANIE:

So I think there are people who are interested in getting the vaccine, but through anecdotal reports, they've had difficulty finding out where to get it. They've contacted multiple GP practices who happen to not be participating GP practices or do have long waiting times, or people have gone to vaccination hubs thinking that they would be able to get the vaccine because they're under 50, but that those vaccination hubs are actually only giving out AstraZeneca. So there's been a lot of confusion and that's leading to some frustration. And then when those stories get circulated in the community, then that can sometimes put people off, I think.

  

RUBY:

Mm and it seems like one of the things that might be leading to or adding to this confusion is a lack of understanding about who actually is eligible to get vaccinated. So can you run me through it -  who can actually get the vaccine right now?

 

MELANIE:

It's people who are 50 years and older. So if you were in that age group, you are now currently eligible for the vaccine. If you have an underlying chronic health condition or disability, then you may be eligible. And there is a list of those specific conditions on the health.gov.au website. Then everything else kind of comes into occupational eligibility. So we've got quarantine and border workers, their household contacts, health care workers, disability staff and residents, aged care staff and residents, and some high risk and critical workforce people. So Defence Force, police, fire, meat processing workers.

 

RUBY:

Mm ok so, so we know who is eligible, but there’s still vast amounts of confusion in the community about the process and the potential risks, there’s complacency, and the government seems to only be exacerbating these issues. What should the government be doing differently, because it sounds like this is pretty urgent?

 

MELANIE:

Yeah, very much so. I mean, I think it's not too late for us to start from now. But I do fear that there is this vacuum that at the moment is being dominated by anti vaccination propaganda and, you know, real sensationalist news stories about the very low risk side effects of the vaccines. 

 

And there's really little information that I'm seeing about what is the benefit to someone of getting the vaccine. And there are a lot of really great benefits from the vaccine.

 

So, for instance, you know, protecting those most vulnerable in our communities, being able to travel again and being reunited with our family from overseas who we haven't seen for over a year now, being able to hug our loved ones again. I think, you know, we're not being reminded of that. And if we're not, then we will tend to focus on these very rare side effects. And unfortunately, at the moment, anyway, that the narrative is being dominated by that. 

 

I think what really needs to occur is for the health departments to be reaching these patients through their TV screens, through their radio, through their Facebook page, through their Twitter feed. And we're just not seeing that happen at the moment.

 

I think a perspective on risk, a reminder about how dangerous covid can be and an emphasis on what we have to gain from the vaccine would all be really important parts of an effective public health education campaign.

 

RUBY:

Melanie, thank you so much for your time.

 

MELANIE: 

Thank you, Ruby. My pleasure.

 

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RUBY:

Also in the news today, the federal health minister Greg Hunt has announced the government has secured enough Pfizer vaccine doses to cover every Australian who wants to be vaccinated by the end of the year.

The government is promising a supply of two million Pfizer doses each week from the start of October.

And tens of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza displaced by the past week and a half of Israeli airstrikes - have begun returning to their homes, as a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel takes effect.

The ceasefire has been hailed by world leaders.

 

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am. See ya tomorrow.

 

Host

Ruby Jones is an investigative journalist and host of 7am.

Guest

Melanie Cheng is a doctor, writer and The Saturday Paper’s health columnist.