More than seven million Australians will be able to get a fourth dose of a COVID shot, as vaccine eligibility is dramatically widened amid surging infections.
Australia’s leading immunisation body formally updated its vaccine advice on Thursday, as cases spike across the country, fuelled by more transmissible strains of the Omicron variant.
Under the Australian Technical Advisory Group’s new recommendation, from Monday (July 11), people over 50 will be recommended to receive a fourth vaccine dose, or second booster shot. Those between 30-49 will be able to have a fourth dose if they choose to do so.
Despite the ruling, ATAGI signalled the impact of widening vaccine eligibility was likely to do little on its own to quell the latest COVID wave – recommending that other measures also be considered.
“ATAGI advises that other public health and social measures, in addition to vaccination, will have the greatest impact against the Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 surge in infections,” it said in a statement released with the updated advisory.
“This includes increased use of masks and increasing the use of antiviral treatment in people diagnosed with COVID-19, including in people aged 50 years and above.”
Earlier, Victorian Health Minister Mary-Anne Thomas refused to rule out a return to working from home and mask-wearing as a third wave of COVID takes off the state.
“The public health team are looking at modelling and they’re consulting with their colleagues and various ideas are floated, but no ideas have been taken,” she told Melbourne radio 3AW on Thursday.
Victoria confirmed another 10,562 cases on Thursday, and 12 more fatalities. It has 592 virus patients in its hospitals, including 30 in intensive care.
The BA.4/BA.5 subvariants have become the dominant strains in Victoria, making up 50.3 per cent of cases in the fortnight to June 20.
Victorian health authorities expect a further rise in infections, and hospitalisations and fatalities, in coming weeks.
Cases are also spiking in other states, with NSW reporting 13,343 on Thursday, and 22 deaths. It has 1822 patients in hospital with the virus, including 62 in ICU.
Queensland, where cases have jumped 18 per cent in the latest wave, has already flagged a possible renewed suspension of elective surgery.
Health Minister Yvette D’Ath said the two new dominant subvariants were more contagious and more than 2000 health staff were off work due to the virus.
“There is no doubt that this will continue to put pressure on our health system,” she said.
“We’re doing everything can we can to streamline our pathways to our [emergency departments], to open up beds.
“Individual hospitals and hospital and health services will make decisions around elective surgery and whether they need to suspend the lower-category surgeries to free up beds, so that they can accommodate these numbers.”
Prior to ATAGI’s latest vaccine decision, fourth COVID shots were available only to those over 65, in aged or disability care, or who are immunocompromised.
ATAGI said the timing between vaccine doses or prior infection, whichever came first, would also be cut from four months to three.
It did not extend eligibility for fourth doses to those under 30 because it is not known if the benefits outweigh the risks for that age group.
Health Minister Mark Butler said 7.4 million people would be able to get fourth doses from Monday.
As of Thursday, 60 per cent of people over 65 have had a fourth COVID-19 vaccine.
ATAGI also said it was concerned the take up of booster doses had was too low. It noted infections were spiralling, putting strain on the nation’s hospitals – and that was expected to worsen in coming months.
Mr Butler said it was critical for people eligible for a fourth dose to get one as soon as possible.
“The vaccine experts on the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation have recommended it – and the government has accepted this advice,” he said.
“We are in the early stages of a third Omicron wave and our government is absolutely committed to making sure as many people as possible are protected with the vaccine.”
Health Minister Mark Butler said the latest subvariants meant there was no automatic protection from reinfection for someone who had already had the virus.
“What is particularly unique and different around BA.4 and BA.5 [is] they’re very good at evading people’s immunity,” he said.
“If you have immunity from vaccines or from having COVID, you’re still susceptible. Just because you had COVID earlier in the year doesn’t mean you’re not at risk of getting it again with this third wave.”
However, Australian National University infectious diseases expert Professor Peter Collignon said those who were more vulnerable to the virus should still be prioritised for a fourth dose.
“By looking at everybody for this, we’re missing the people who are most at risk,” he told Sky News on Thursday,
“By doing the whole population as we’re doing, and implying almost everybody’s equal, we’re missing the people who are dying the most, and that’s those who are older.”
Australia’s latest 24-hour COVID data:
NSW: 13,343 cases, 22 deaths, 1822 in hospital with 62 in ICU
Victoria: 10,265 cases, 12 deaths, 592 in hospital with 30 in ICU
Tasmania: 1728 cases, no deaths, 80 in hospital with three in ICU
Northern Territory: 353 cases, no deaths, 19 in hospital with none in ICU
Western Australia: 6387 cases, eight deaths, 240 in hospital with 12 in ICU
South Australia: 3762 cases, one death, 254 in hospital with 12 in ICU