Six weeks into Australia’s vaccine rollout, barely half of the nation’s highest-risk group for COVID infections have been given access to a jab.
But in one remote Queensland town, “everyone in the community” is able to get one.
Frontline health and quarantine workers are being told to wait months in line alongside the general public for their jabs, with rollout delays partly blamed for an unvaccinated Queensland doctor and nurse contracting COVID in Brisbane’s latest outbreak.
But in one region of the Sunshine State 12 hours from the capital, with zero virus cases through the entire pandemic, healthy teenagers can ask for a jab right now.
“There is no phased approach in the Central West,” the Longreach-based Central West Hospital and Health Service posted on Facebook.
“The vaccine is safe, effective, free and available for everyone 18 years and over in the community who wants it.”
The federal health department has now told The New Daily that, unlike in towns and cities, all residents of remote communities can get their COVID-19 jab.
It’s another example of varying approaches to the vaccine rollout.
Questions over rollout to highest-risk patients
Australia’s “phased approach” sees high-risk groups prioritised for the vaccine as the rollout progresses.
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt spoke in February of his “rough expectation” that Phase 1a – 678,000 frontline health, border and quarantine workers, plus aged-care residents and staff – would be finished by this week.
However, Mr Hunt said on Sunday just 111,873 of about 190,000 Commonwealth aged-care residents had received a vaccine.
The numbers of vaccinated high-risk workers in Phase 1a is not currently known, but doctors have reportedly been told to line up alongside the general public to get their jabs.
Multiple frontline doctors told The New Daily they’ve been advised they may have to wait until May or later for their vaccine.
The federal government came under heavy criticism for failing to meet self-imposed benchmarks of four million vaccinations by early April.
In a press conference, Mr Hunt was not able to give a total number of Phase 1a vaccinations, or when that phase may be completed, noting there may be “late entrants” to each phase.
The Commonwealth has administered 387,000 total doses, including people in rollout Phase 1b, he said.
Mr Hunt said 841,000 doses had been administered nationally as of Saturday night, including 126,000 in New South Wales, 116,000 in Victoria, and 87,000 in Queensland.
Phase 1b, which began two weeks ago, covers 6.13 million people.
It includes those aged over 70, healthcare workers not in Phase 1a, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders aged over 55, critical workers like police and emergency staff, and people with underlying health conditions.
Phases 2a and 2b, for the remainder of the population, include 13.2 million people. They are pencilled to begin mid-year.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian is concerned vaccinations may end up months behind schedule.
But in towns like Longreach, 700 kilometres inland along the Capricorn Highway from Rockhampton, those phases don’t apply, and “everyone” can get a jab.
According to statistics from Queensland’s health department, more than 1056 doses have been administered at the Longreach Outreach vaccine site.
This is despite the Rural Doctors Association complaining a “significant number” of country staff have missed out on the jab.
‘Sensible’ to vaccinate all in remote areas
When asked by The New Daily at his press conference, Mr Hunt said he was “not aware of” the phased approach being sidelined in some areas, and asked for more information, which TND provided to his office.
“The phased approach is well understood,” Mr Hunt said, but added a non-phased approach may be appropriate in cases like Indigenous health services vaccinating “small towns”.
The federal and Queensland health departments later confirmed some rural areas had been allowed to ditch the phases, and vaccinate everyone.
A Queensland Health spokesperson said it was “practical and sensible”.
“For some rural and remote communities, a whole-of-community vaccination approach will be taken instead of vaccinating only those who are eligible according to the phases outlined in the national vaccination rollout strategy,” the spokesperson told TND in a statement.
“Our community population sizes are quite small here in the Central West. Consequently, it makes more sense for our immunisation teams to offer the vaccine to all eligible community members and health service staff aged 18 years and over who want it at the one time.”
A federal Department of Health spokesperson said state and federal governments had agreed last month the phased approach would not apply to very rural or remote areas.
“This enables efficient delivery of COVID-19 vaccinations to communities that are hard to reach and where delivery to whole of community may be more appropriate,” the spokesperson said.
“Queensland is the first jurisdiction to work in this way and we are working closely with them on this.”
The federal department spokesperson said all people over 18 in remote communities were considered a “priority”.
However, the rollout schedule on the department’s website ‘When will I get a COVID vaccine?’ does not note this.
The Queensland Nurses and Midwives Union said “logistically it makes sense to vaccinate the entire area” of a remote region.
State Health Minister Yvette D’Ath said on Tuesday that 89 per cent of her state’s frontline workers had received at least their first jabs.
It came after the state government faced tough questions over why a doctor and nurse, who were treating COVID patients and later contracted the virus, had not received a shot.
TND has contacted Queensland Health for updated frontline vaccination figures.
Federal Labor’s shadow health minister, Mark Butler, claimed the Commonwealth government had “made a mess of its responsibilities to vaccinate the most vulnerable”.
“We need to know what the new target dates are for this vaccine rollout,” Mr Butler said.
“Australians expect and deserve clearer answers on when they are going to get the vaccine.”