Mass vaccination sites are set to open across the City of Melbourne as the Andrews government looks at upskilling health workers to ensure there are enough staff to administer a COVID-19 vaccine.
The City of Melbourne’s medical officer, Dr Ines Rio, said the council had identified five sites – Melbourne Town Hall, Carlton Baths, Community Hub at the Dock, Kensington Town Hall and North Melbourne Town Hall – where the public could be immunised against COVID-19 en masse.
The state government has started preparing for the roll-out of a large-scale COVID-19 vaccination program that would immunise Victorians “as quickly as possible”.Credit:Siphiwe Sibeko/Pool via AP
“They work well from a flow point of view, they are big and we have the immunisation staff,” said Dr Rio, who is also chair of the Australian Medical Association's general practitioner section.
Priority groups, which are likely to be frontline health workers and older Australians, would access the vaccine first, with a security guard checking people's identification to ensure they qualified.
Strict infection controls, such as temperature checks, would ensure the vaccines were only administered to people free of COVID symptoms.
As the world anxiously awaits the release of a COVID-19 vaccine, the state government is preparing for a roll-out that would immunise Victorians “as quickly as possible”.
“We have begun investigating potential training programs that may be required to ensure we have the right amount of health staff needed to administer a vaccine,” a Victorian Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman said.
“Victoria already has pharmacists trained to provide immunisations which will also boost our workforce capacity.”
Melbourne Council has been preparing for a pandemic for some time, with many elements of its coronavirus response detailed in a 2008 document that was created in response to the H5N1 avian flu.
GPs will also play a key role in administering the vaccine and will encourage patients to attend clinics for the shot, Dr Rio said.
“General practice is important because we do the push out, ‘you are in this group, please drop in for the vaccination’,” she said.
“This will be a relatively new vaccine and I have no doubt that all the safety data will be A-OK but there will be more reticence. I can sense it already. There will be more discussions about the safety data, the risks and benefits.”
However, UNSW epidemiologist Professor Raina MacIntyre is concerned that Australia does not have the capacity to vaccinate its population against COVID-19.
She estimates that Australia is set up to vaccinate approximately 5 million people a year through its national immunisation program, compared to the 25 million people who will need a COVID-19 vaccine.
“We don’t have anywhere near the capacity to vaccinate the whole of Australia,” she said.
Professor MacIntyre said the vaccine would need to be administered to as many people as possible within a short period of time, ideally a few months.
“You have to get the vaccination rates up quickly," she said. " If it is limited by the number of people who can vaccinate and it takes two or three years to vaccinate the population, then we will be living with COVID-19 for longer.”
She said vaccinators were just as important as hospital beds, ventilators and contact tracing.
“You need nurse vaccinators to be trained up right now.”
The Australian College of Nursing is lobbying the federal government for funding to train an additional 10,000 immunisers and upskill a further 50,000 to deliver a COVID-19 vaccine.
Chief executive Kylie Ward said immunisers must undertake annual training to remain up-to-date with vaccines.
“You could have any number of immunisers in the country but until they have done the updated courses to support coronavirus and the vaccination for that, then they wouldn't be able to give it anyway," she said.
A spokesman for federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said Australia had a "world-class" vaccination system and its supply chain distributed a record 17.6 million doses of the flu vaccine in 2020.
He said the government was reviewing the 2020 flu season to help determine the roll-out of the 2021 flu vaccine and COVID vaccine program.
GPs reported serious distribution problems with the flu shot this year, with some clinics flooded with the vaccine and others having to ration doses.
The federal government recently struck a $1.7 billion agreement with the University of Oxford/AstraZeneca and the University of Queensland/CSL which will provide more than 84.8 million vaccine doses that will be predominantly manufactured in Melbourne.
If all goes to plan, vulnerable Australians and frontline healthcare workers will be able to access 3.8 million doses of the vaccine from January and February.
But the race to roll out a vaccine was dealt a blow this week when AstraZeneca announced its clinical trials would be temporarily suspended after a participant suffered a “potentially unexplained illness”.
The Pharmacy Guild Victorian president Anthony Tassone said he had been in discussions with the state government and pharmacist immunisers must play a central role in maximising coverage.
“It would be our expectation that pharmacist immunisers in Victoria would be given authorisation to administer the COVID-19 vaccine to patients when it becomes available,” he said.
With Rob Harris
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