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Doctors are turning away patients booking COVID-19 booster shots and a scheduled vaccination program at an aged care facility has been delayed as the country’s peak medical association warns Australia’s booster program is already falling dangerously behind.
NSW is anticipating up to 25,000 cases a day by the end of January, as the highly transmissible Omicron variant spreads through the community. Victoria, which has so far confirmed 10 Omicron cases, is also expecting a significant increase.
Ripponlea Medical Centre practice manager Marcus Gwynne, said demand for booster shots increased tenfold virtually overnight.Credit:Eddie Jim
The Australian Medical Association now says the nation risks a repeat of mistakes made overseas where a slow rollout of vaccine boosters led to the rapid spread of the COVID-19 variant.
Emerging international research indicates that a third vaccine dose is critical to providing optimal protection against the Omicron strain.
But doctors administering booster shots are struggling to keep up with the massive increase in demand since the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation advised the federal government to cut the vaccine booster interval from six months to five on Saturday.
Meanwhile, many state vaccination hubs in Victoria are closing and some GPs are pulling out of administering vaccines citing a lack of federal funding support. However the shortfall in demand could prove temporary, as more vaccine supply is expected to become available early next year.
Nearly 450,000 Victorians are now overdue for their booster vaccine.
Several GPs speaking to The Age on Wednesday said they had been forced only recently to throw out hundreds of expired Pfizer doses, but were now frantically ordering more stock after the federal government moved to fast-track the booster program.
One clinic delayed scheduled booster shots at a local aged care facility amid a tenfold rise in demand that had occurred almost overnight.
Umair Masood, a GP in Gisborne, north-west of Melbourne, said he threw out 240 expired Pfizer doses on Tuesday after desperately trying to offload them to nearby medical clinics.
“They were all throwing out doses as well because there just hasn’t been the demand,” Dr Masood said.
“You feel really horrible because we all realise how dire the situation is all over the world. These are life-saving vaccines that are being put in the bin. Everybody is distressed by it.”
Dr Masood said there had been very slow uptake in booster shots until ATAGI altered its advice.
GPs were given no notice of this change and many like Dr Masood were now trying to quickly order more vials, to give booster doses to their patients in coming weeks.
Gisborne GP Umair Masood said until the guidelines changed, there was a slow uptake of booster shots.Credit:Paul Rovere
“Yet again, the GPs are the last to know,” he said.
Ripponlea Medical Centre’s practice manager Marcus Gwynne said the phones had been “ringing off the headsets” at his clinic since the booster program was fast-tracked.
At the start of the week, the clinic had 120 doses, but “right now, I could probably use 1000,” Mr Gwynne said.
The earliest the federal government can supply him with fresh vials is Christmas. The clinic had to cancel a scheduled booster program at a local aged care facility on Thursday, due to a lack of vaccines.
Carnegie Central Medical Clinic’s practice manager Samantha Allen said she needed at least 150 doses of Pfizer to meet the sudden rise in demand, but that the clinic only had 48.
The clinic has put in an urgent order of 720 doses with the federal government, which she hopes will arrive in about a week, but she admits “there are no guarantees”. The clinic had recently thrown out about 200 expired doses.
“There’s been a lot of wastage leading up until now because of the shelf life and we were planning to wind down for Christmas and New Year, as most people have been double-dosed. We weren’t expecting the booster doses to come in so early,” Ms Allen said.
Australian Medical Association national president Omar Khorshid said he suspected the delays in getting doses to doctors was due to a surge in orders in recent days, rather than a lack of vaccine supply.
He said Australia should be aiming to administer a million boosters a week and that state-run clinics should remain open for the duration of the booster program.
AMA president Dr Omar Khorshid.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
“We’ve got this emerging variant, and we’ve got this urgent need to get boosters in arms and pretty much vaccinate the entire population again in a short period of time,” Dr Khorshid said.
“At the moment it looks like it’s set to fail, but we have the opportunity to address it now.
“By the end of this month close to four million people will be eligible for a booster, however, in the last week, Australia has only been able to administer just over 210,000 booster doses.”
Royal Australian College of General Practitioners Victorian chair Anita Munoz said she had received several letters from Victorian GPs who were considering pulling out of the vaccine program because it was not financially viable for them to continue.
“They have been left bruised and battered … the morale and the goodwill among doctors is totally eroding,” she said.
“We are very, very concerned that general practitioners will only be able to, at best, vaccinate their own patients.
“With the decommissioning of state-run vaccine centres, it is going to lead to a very sluggish booster rollout.”
Dr Munoz confirmed she was aware of reports of GP clinics having to throw out expired vaccine doses due to dwindling demand, but she said the extent of this was hard to quantify. She suspected changing advice around boosters was partly to blame.
In a further sign the booster program is under pressure, two-thirds of Victorian pharmacists signed up to deliver COVID-19 vaccines were no longer ordering Pfizer jabs in November, due to inadequate remuneration from the federal government.
The state’s largest vaccine hub at the Royal Exhibition Building will close on Friday. The Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre is also set to close.
Vaccine hubs running at Melbourne Showgrounds, St Vincent’s Private Hospital at Werribee and the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness and Research Centre have already closed as demand for vaccines dwindled and the state reached the key 90 per cent double dose milestone.
Victoria’s largest vaccine hub at the Royal Exhibition Building will close on Friday.Credit:Penny Stephens
The state government has now announced 10 pop-up vaccine clinics to assist with the booster program.
Royal Australian College of General Practitioners national president Karen Price said GPs were being expected to lead the vaccine booster program at the same time they were being inundated with people presenting with delayed diagnosis and mental health issues linked to the pandemic.
“Once again primary care is being asked to step up and the resourcing is going to be critical,” she said.
General practices were being paid about $10 less to deliver boosters compared to first and second doses — just under $25 and about $66 combined for the first and second doses.
Royal Australian College of GPs NSW chair Charlotte Hespe said her Glebe medical practice was doing at least 120 booster appointments each day, but limited staffing and constrained vaccine supply meant the practice could not ramp up further.
“It’s has been bedlam yet again,” said Dr Hespe. “People are calling to check when they are eligible and see if we can be flexible about timing and bring doses forward a few days.
“But because we had thought the booster program wouldn’t kick off until January we told all the extra nurses we trained up to come back next year.”
Dr Hespe also said many GPs are running short of vaccine supply with practices securing orders weeks ago and new orders not set to arrive until the new year.
“People who are due to have their booster around Christmas are asking if they can come a few days earlier … and we want to be able to provide that flexibility, especially for people who have had accelerated AstraZeneca doses.
A Victorian government spokeswoman said the federal government was leading the national COVID-19 booster dose program.
“While booster doses are available through state-run vaccination sites, the majority of booster shots and ongoing vaccination roll-out will be administered through Commonwealth primary care providers-GPs and pharmacies,” she said.
There are 58 vaccine hubs still operating, including a large vaccine clinic at the Town Hall in Broadmeadows and one at the old Ford factory site in Campbellfield.
With Lucy Carroll
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