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Prioritising the Pfizer vaccine for residents under 50 has wrought havoc on Australia’s attempt to vaccinate young people with disabilities living in care homes against Covid.
The federal health department has acknowledged it is yet to finalise a new plan to vaccinate the priority group.
Medical professionals are now warning the cold chain delivery and specialist mobile teams required to administer the Pfizer vaccine in disability care homes are already at capacity because of the rollout across aged-care homes. A sick day by even a single staff member is forcing vaccinations scheduled for some facilities to be abandoned and their residents moved to the bottom of the queue.
Meanwhile, experts have spoken of “consternation” at a lack of consultation by federal health authorities on vaccinations for Australians with disabilities living outside of care homes. In some cases, patients have been forced to leave their beds at hospitals, which have the capacity to administer vaccines, to travel to vaccine appointments elsewhere because of eligibility rules.
As of Saturday, about 262,000 vaccine doses had been administered across the aged care and disability care sectors.
The government does not routinely provide a specific breakdown of this figure, but federal health department officials told a Senate committee hearing on 20 April that fewer than 7% of disability care residents had received a single dose of vaccine.
Both aged care and disability care residents fall under phase 1a of the rollout, but just 1,448 disability care residents had received their first dose by late April, with 25,000 yet to receive any dose.
At the time, health teams administering vaccines were yet to visit about 6,000 disability care facilities across the country.
The health department officials also told the committee that aged care residents were being prioritised within the cohort following the early April decision to prioritise AstraZeneca for over 50-year-olds and Pfizer for everyone younger, a move triggered by blood clot concerns for younger recipients of the AstraZeneca vaccine.
However, the Guardian understands that private sector medical experts contracted by the government to vaccinate residents living in aged care facilities are already overworked, and are sceptical the rollout to disability care settings will be able to be hastened.
Vaccinations at residential facilities are carried out by the private sector, with health teams scheduled to arrive at specific facilities on specific days. There, they meet private couriers contracted by the federal government, who are delivering the doses. DHL delivers the Pfizer vaccine, as its vehicles are capable of the refrigeration requirements, while Linfox delivers the AstraZeneca vaccine.
People involved in the private sector rollout have told the Guardian the government “has not yet communicated well” its plans for the recalibrated disability rollout.
“Frankly, even they don’t have an answer for a lot of this,” one of the people said.
“Already we are overworked. When normal stuff goes wrong, there’s very little give in the system. If someone takes a few days off sick, then whichever aged care facility we had scheduled has to move back to the bottom of the queue, because there is no sensitivity to how overworked these people are.”
Meanwhile, Prof Steven Faux, the director of rehabilitation at St Vincent’s hospital in Sydney, has warned that vaccinating Australians with disabilities, whether in hospitals or in care settings, requires a level of consideration he has yet to see from the federal health department.
He said behavioural and physical issues meant recipients with disabilities could require significantly longer post-vaccine care than the 15 minutes of observation standard for other cohorts.
“If you can’t walk and you need your arms to propel a wheelchair or move from bed to chair, then having a painful or weakened arm for 48 hours might lead you to be bedridden,” Faux wrote in the Guardian, urging the federal government to use state hospitals already equipped with disability care.
When the Guardian asked the federal health department whether an updated plan to vaccinate Australians with disabilities under 50 living in group care homes had been devised, a spokeswoman confirmed that the rollout for this cohort was still being negotiated with states, territories and private sector providers.
“During the recalibration phase the government worked closely with states and territories and weekly meetings were established to undertake this work as quickly as possible,” she said. “This included consideration of how to facilitate access to vaccines for those in priority cohorts including disability.”
The spokeswoman said authorities aimed “to schedule vaccinations as soon as possible for people with disability living in residential accommodation of two or more people eligible under phase 1a”.
Most states would resume vaccinating this cohort “over the coming weeks”, she said, but vaccinations in disability care homes had resumed only in the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory last week.
“The vaccination of people with disability in residential settings is a complex logistical operation which has commenced,” she said.