26 May 2021

Australia's COVID-19 vaccine rollout is 'falling short' in regional areas

| Hannah Sparks
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The Health Care Centre staff

Staff at The Health Care Centre in Crookwell have been ready to administer COVID-19 vaccines since April. Front: Dr Johanna Kovats. Back (from left): Sally Galland, Heidi Ehmann, Kristen Lawton, Sally Gamble and Megan Williams. Photo: Hannah Sparks.

Since the COVID-19 vaccine rollout began, Dr Johanna Kovats has been ready to run a vaccination clinic from her general practice in Crookwell on the NSW Southern Tablelands.

She hired and trained four extra nurses, purchased a $3000-plus vaccine fridge and submitted an order of 250 vaccines per week.

However, they were told they would only receive 50 vaccines per week for 12 weeks.

“We are the only place in Crookwell that can administer the AstraZeneca vaccine and there are 1356 over-50s according to the 2016 Census. However, I think that’s a gross underestimate and would say there are more like 2500 in that age bracket,” Dr Kovats said.

“With 50 vaccines per week, it was going to take forever to vaccinate everyone.”

After six weeks, the practice was told with little notice it would receive 150 vaccines per week.

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“What you order and what you get aren’t the same thing,” Dr Kovats said.

Even with 300 vaccines per fortnight, it will take Dr Kovats and her team nearly six months to vaccinate Crookwell’s over 50s.

In Goulburn, the Health Hub’s practice manager Sophie Ashton also said they were “falling short” before their dosage was increased to 150 per week.

“We and four other clinics in Goulburn are distributing the vaccine and we only started meeting demand when they increased our supply,” she said.

Dr Neil Starmer of Queen Street Medical Centre in Moruya and Broulee on the NSW South Coast had to make the difficult decision not to accept new patients.

He had just 100 vaccines per week to distribute to his 10,000 active patients to begin with and has 250 from this week.

Dr Neil Starmer

Dr Neil Starmer from Queen Street Medical Centre has had to turn away new patients. Photo: Karyn Starmer.

Queen Street Medical Centre’s practice manager Shelley Pritchett said the clinic could be administering more vaccines, but then the team would have the issue of finding more staff.

“We’ve taken 100 bookings for COVID-19 vaccines over the two sites just today,” Dr Starmer said.

“A registered nurse who’s done the vaccination course is as rare as hen’s teeth. So, as Shelley said, we’ve hit our limit now our vaccine numbers have increased because we’re also doing influenza (flu) vaccines and routine vaccines.”

A Batemans Bay resident eligible for the AstraZeneca vaccine who wished to remain anonymous said she tried to book at the local practices listed on NSW Health’s website but was turned away from all four, including Queen Street Medical Centre, as she wasn’t a regular patient.

One of the problems has been the slow delivery of vaccines to Australia. Even so, these practices say the number of vaccines in regional versus metro areas doesn’t add up.

“I was shocked that even though we have a very large patient base, we were only offered 50 at the start, whereas other practices who had fewer patients were offered more,” Ms Pritchett said.

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Rural Doctors’ Association of Australia CEO Peta Rutherford said the government based the vaccine rollout on per capita data and the demographic of each practice’s patients.

The government also considered if there was a GP respiratory clinic nearby and if other local GPs were getting the vaccine, according to Ms Rutherford.

In the meantime, clinics such as Crookwell’s have created a waiting list of patients who want the AstraZeneca vaccine so they can be called as soon as a vaccine is available.

Dr Kovats has also been telling patients who are willing to travel to make an appointment elsewhere.

“I didn’t want us to hold the vaccination up,” she said.

These GPs say the regional uptake of the AstraZeneca vaccine has been positive. However, there are still some people who have concerns about it being linked to blood clots, and some even believe the conspiracy theory that it’s a way for the government to place a microchip in their arm.

“We are having to reassure people every day,” Dr Kovats said. “It won’t put a microchip in your arm and the chances of it causing thrombosis is one in 100,000.”

It would seem that while the cities have enough vaccines but not enough people wanting them, regional areas have plenty of eager patients but not enough vaccines to fill the need.

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Again country people are being treated like 2nd class citizens, it’s hard to believe that this can happen our country. We need stronger representation from our government members stand up for country areas, get things happening for us, this is only the tip of the iceberg!!

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