Fewer than 7% of disability care residents have so far received a dose of Covid vaccine, leaving 25,000 residents unvaccinated despite being in the top priority group.
Federal health department officials revealed on Tuesday that aged care residents had been prioritised meaning residents of 6,000 disability care facilities were yet to receive even one dose.
The department secretary, Prof Brendan Murphy, confirmed at the Senate Covid-19 inquiry that Australia was still aiming to vaccinate its entire vulnerable population by mid-year. But he refused to provide updated targets for the broader vaccination program citing increased hesitancy and uncertainty of supply.
Murphy conceded a warning against giving AstraZeneca to people aged under 50 due to rare blood clots has caused a spike in vaccine hesitancy, although the chief medical officer, Prof Paul Kelly, argued this was also being driven by decreasing rates of people believing they were at risk of contracting Covid-19.
The Covid-19 inquiry hearing comes as Australia’s vaccination program is being redesigned, with a plan to accelerate the rollout for over-50-year-olds set to be approved at national cabinet on Thursday.
Australia’s rollout is structured by priority cohorts, starting with the 1a group that includes quarantine and frontline health workers along with aged and disability care workers and residents.
On Tuesday, the department’s associate secretary, Caroline Edwards, told the inquiry that only 1,448 disability care residents in 93 facilities had received their first dose; while 192 people in 17 facilities had both doses of the vaccine. Some 25,000 are yet to receive their first dose.
“When we discovered aged care was more difficult, we did focus on aged care – not because people with a disability are any less of a priority, but the experience of Covid-19 has been that the absolutely greatest risk are elderly people in aged care,” Edwards said.
Edwards noted aged care facilities tended to be larger, whereas disability care facilities were smaller so outbreaks would be easier to stop.
Murphy noted age was the “single biggest” factor increasing the chance of death by Covid and Australia had not had major outbreaks in disability care. Australia has had 910 deaths from Covid-19, 685 of which were in aged care.
Murphy promised that disability care residents would be vaccinated “very soon” and restated the government’s aim was to have all vulnerable populations – including all people aged over 70 in phase 1b – vaccinated by mid-year.
Murphy and Edwards said the states and territories had reported they had completed phase 1a vaccinations for frontline and quarantine workers. Before the non-delivery of 3.1m doses of AstraZeneca from overseas, the federal health minister, Greg Hunt, had claimed the entire phase 1a could be achieved in six weeks.
Asked about new targets for the rollout – after the government abandoned the promise that Australians would be fully vaccinated by October – Murphy said he was “not able to give an update” because of a “number of uncertainties” including increased hesitancy and the international supply of Pfizer.
Murphy noted there was “plenty of Pfizer coming” – 40m doses in total – but they were “backended more to the end than the beginning of the year”.
Based on public statements from Hunt, Guardian Australia estimates that 28m – or 70% – of Australia’s Pfizer’s supply will arrive in the final three months of the year. Scott Morrison has recognised there will need to be a “12-week sprint” to vaccinate under-50s with Pfizer in the final weeks of the year.
On Tuesday, Murphy noted the rare blood clot issue had resulted in warnings being applied to AstraZeneca worldwide, and this, in turn, could exacerbate supply constraints for alternative vaccines such as Pfizer, which he said was in strong demand.
“The international supply of Pfizer, which is an even more important vaccine to our rollout now, is subject to ongoing reassessment with Pfizer,” he said.
“They are doing their best as a company to increase their supply, but the forward view that they can give us of supply with certainty is limited. So it is going to be hard without a clear reliance on domestic supply to be absolutely certain about targets.”
Kelly said the government had been tracking vaccine hesitancy, with surveys revealing a reduction in the number of young people wanting to take the vaccine.
He said this was related to what was known as the “health belief model”, whereby the willingness to take the vaccine was correlated to the risk of contracting a disease.
In March last year, 70% of Australians were “very worried” about Covid-19 affecting them personally, but this had since dropped to 30%.
“If people feel that they are at risk of suffering from a particular disease, they are much more likely to be lining up to get the vaccination, and that is something that has dropped over a period of time,” Kelly said.
“People hear the news about the blood clots and so forth, and even though it is an extremely rare event … they weigh that up and that is a very logical thing for people to be doing,” he said.
However, Kelly said that surveys found that the most vulnerable people, particularly the elderly, were still confident about the vaccine, because “they understand this balance between risk and benefit”.
Murphy confirmed Australia was “likely to need to have” an mRNA capability in the long term, confirming the government was considering an investment in manufacturing capability for the new type of vaccine. He warned this would take “at least 12 months” to develop.
“It’s unlikely [local mRNA vaccines will be] able to help us with our primary vaccination program,” he said. “But we may need boosters in the future. If these are ongoing and necessary, these vaccines are of interest to the government and we’ve been asked to provide options.”
Australia has also contracted for 51m doses of Novavax, but Murphy said the company was no longer committing to deliver 10m by mid-year due to “delays and restrictions”.
The Therapeutic Goods Administration head, John Skerritt, said on Tuesday that Novavax would submit final data for approval in late June or early July.