The next stage of Australia’s vaccine rollout begins on Monday. As a GP I have been asked many logistical questions in anticipation of this rollout from my regular patients and my answer – up until now – is always the same: “I don’t know.”
“When will I be notified?” they ask.
“Do I make an appointment?”
“How many are you doing a day?”
“Am I eligible? What conditions count?”
I stay on top of the latest medical news. I work part time in a Covid respiratory clinic. I’ve done my three hours of mandatory Covid vaccination training modules. I ignored the criticisms of other GPs about these modules. I’ve had serious conversations with the practice owners on how we hope to roll out the vaccine.
But while the next phase of vaccination rollouts is an exciting time for Australia’s Covid strategy, the upcoming date and patient queries make me feel apprehensive. The process has been a cacophony of questions without answers. It all started with an expression of interest for eligible practices. Then came a notification of being shortlisted and the instruction to do the training modules – which was useful in talking about the vaccination process, handling, storage and side effects but showed minimal guidance on how the GP practice should be set up. Everything else has been heard through the grapevine – are we getting 50 vaccines a week? 80? 100? How will bookings be made? I only heard about the national booking system two days before its rollout. No wonder GP receptionists were inundated with phone calls without being able to provide an answer.
Who will be keeping checks on eligibility for the vaccination during this phase? Which “specified medical conditions” will be accepted? We are told that it is not our job as clinicians to assess criteria but morally I have an issue with the inevitable few who will try to jump the queue. The training module listed the eligible conditions but I could not easily find a similar list elsewhere that potential eligible patients could view. The official vaccine eligibility checker has a simple yes/no to “do you have an underlying medical condition?”
It is a headache that is hard to understand considering vaccinations have been touted to be a solution almost as soon as the pandemic began. It seems at best to be poor execution and at worst a worrying lack of planning.
Thankfully though, there are some questions that I can answer.
“I’ve had my first shot!” I tell my patients who ask. My first dose two weeks ago at a major hospital was unlike anything that I have experienced before. From taking a shuttle bus to the vaccination centre, to registering with a clerk, health questions with a nurse, vaccination, observed for 15 minutes, talking to another nurse regarding any side effects and finally to another clerk about a second appointment, the whole process took almost an hour. That hospital efficiency will be difficult to replicate in a GP practice, especially with the Department of Health seemingly leaving individual practices to fend for themselves while simultaneously lauded as an integral part of the strategy.
I did not hesitate in accepting my Covid vaccination. It marked what is hopefully the beginning of the end. An end to fear, uncertainty and a venture into the next stage of whatever “Covid normal” is to be. The side effects are similar to childhood vaccinations – potentially local pain and redness, to nonspecific malaise, headaches, nausea, body aches and fevers to anaphylaxis – an accepted risk of any medication, whether new or old.
Fears over infertility or even blood clots are in my opinion unfounded and unhelpful when overblown by some quarters of the media. I have encountered some vaccine hesitancy in my regular patients, and while this is intellectually understandable on the surface, it ignores the unprecedented nature of the pandemic and the world effectively dropping everything else to work towards a vaccine. It is not the safety and efficacy of the vaccine that is in question, but the administrative inefficiencies have to be optimised.
Similar to how we trust that other drivers on the road will stick to the rules, restaurateurs adhere to food safety standards and airlines have done their safety checks, we need to trust that our scientists, regulators and health officers have our best interests at heart.
It is a slippery slope otherwise.
For now I ask that we be patient. Give your local GP and their staff enough time to fit everyone in. Know that we are stretched and in the dark at times. The low number of cases and absence of community transmission in Australia luckily affords us all ample time, and eventually everyone who wants a vaccine will get one.