Doorstop interview about the COVID-19 vaccine rollout on 18 February 2021
Read the transcript of the press conference with Minister Hunt and Professor Brendan Murphy, in Canberra on 18 February about the COVID-19 vaccine rollout in Australia.
The Hon Greg Hunt MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care
Good afternoon everybody. I am joined by Professor Brendan Murphy who is the head of the Vaccines Taskforce. We wanted to outline today the next steps with regards to phase 1A of Australia’s COVID vaccine program, which begins next Monday.
Before doing so, I, in particular, wanted to mention that with regards to national progress on containment, it’s a positive day.
Zero cases of community transmission nationwide on the advice of the National Incident Centre. Zero Australians in ICU with COVID-19 and 73,000 tests completed in the last 24 hours to take it to about 13.9 million COVID tests. And at the same time, almost 400,000 cases worldwide, and sadly, over 11,000 lives lost.
All of that reminds us why no matter what we do with containment, we have to have a broad scale national vaccination program.
And that program begins with a focus on those who are most vulnerable, either the risk of catching COVID-19 or the consequences if they were to catch COVID-19.
And so today, Professor Murphy and I will set out briefly the initial towns and suburbs, hubs, and groups. In essence, the where, who, and how for the commencement of the Pfizer element of the phase 1 program.
Once we have shipping conformation, we’ll provide further detail on the additional AstraZeneca component. And then as we work through the plan, which has been based on safety and effectiveness, we’ll outline each stage in advance, but that always depends on making sure that we have very clear confirmation of the shipping details to be able to provide to Australians. But we’re on track.
In particular today, if I can just turn and remind. Ro the next slide, what we see here, you'll be familiar that we're proceeding in five phases.
Phase 1A is the three priority groups, which Professor Murphy will set out, of our aged care and disability residents and their staff, our quarantine and border workers, and our frontline health workers.
Phase 1B will focus on the over 80s, the over 70s, Indigenous Australians over 55, those who are immunocompromised, and our police and emergency services, amongst others.
Then phase 2A will focus on the over 60s, over 50s, the balance of Indigenous Australians, and then also critical service workers. And then phase 2B will be the balance of the population.
And phase 3, if clinical trials were to provide global information on the efficacy and safety in children, then it would proceed to children.
If I can just then move to the next slide. What we're doing now is, this week, we commence the aged care rollout as well as work through the state Pfizer hubs.
There will be approximately 240 aged care facilities, if not more, that are vaccinated in Week 1. And we're of the expectation that that will be at least 190 towns, and we'll also have 16 Pfizer hubs.
And those towns cover all of Australia, commencing in Alice Springs in the Northern Territory, or Farrer, or Tiwi in the Northern Territory.
Here in the ACT, towns such as Weston and Narrabundah.
We know that in Tasmania it could be in Burnie, or in Somerset, or in Wynyard. All of these are on the list amongst others.
We then go to New South Wales and across New South Wales, in the city areas such as Blacktown or Penrith. Across the state, areas such as Gosford West and Orange will see facilities inoculated.
If we turn to Queensland, we'll have areas such as Aspley, Bundaberg, Cleveland, Mackay, and many others.
And then, if we move to Victoria, Altona Meadows, Ballarat, Bendigo, Cranbourne, Dandenong, and a variety of others.
And then in South Australia, what we'll see is Aldgate, Encounter Bay, Heathfield, Mount Barker.
Western Australia areas such as Bunbury, or Emu Point near Albany, Kingsley, Mirrabooka, and Rockingham, amongst many others.
The point of that is that right across Australia, every state and territory, rural and regional, and urban areas will be covered. It has to start somewhere and it has to finish somewhere, but this is the beginning of the process.
We then, of course, have the Pfizer vaccination hubs, which include the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in New South Wales, the Monash Medical Centre in Victoria, the Gold Coast University Hospital in Queensland, the Royal Adelaide Hospital in South Australia, Perth Children's Hospital in Western Australia, Royal Hobart Hospital in Tasmania, Canberra Hospital here in the ACT, and the Royal Darwin Hospital.
And if we then look at the map, over the coming six weeks, which is our rough expectation for the phase 1A program, we'll see that, progressively around Australia, the aged care centres and the hubs will cover - we seek to address all of the aged care centres in Australia.
That's the initial group of hubs, and they will continue to expand out as the vaccine suppliers and the states are at readiness to do that. And we want to thank all of the states and territories for their work.
So, that's a little bit of an outline of where we begin, in terms of the areas. I'll turn now to Professor Murphy, who will talk about who will be vaccinated and how they'll be vaccinated.
Thank you, Minister. So, I'm going to provide a bit more detail on the advice from ATAGI, the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation on the priority groups for frontline vaccinations in 1A.
So that will include frontline healthcare workers, border and quarantine workers, and people living and working in residential aged and disability care settings.
Just a bit of information on the frontline healthcare workers, these are the group of healthcare workers who are most at risk of being exposed to someone with COVID.
Fortunately, at the moment, that risk is quite low, because we don’t have community transmission. But if we did get further transmission, these are the healthcare workers most likely to see someone who could have unsuspecting COVID.
So it includes those clinical staff who work in emergency departments, COVID respiratory wards, intensive care units, and high-dependency units. Those lab staff who are doing those thousands and thousands of COVID tests every day, ambulance and paramedics, people working in those special GP respiratory clinics that do COVID testing, and people working in other testing services. Next slide.
The quarantine and border workers are the single most high-risk group at the moment, because as we've seen in recent months and recent weeks, that is where COVID is in Australia at the moment. It's in returning travellers in quarantine. And we've seen a number of small transmission events.
So we believe that vaccinating the quarantine and border workers will substantially protect them from transmission, we hope, but certainly from getting symptomatic COVID. And that's our single highest priority in the first few weeks of the Pfizer hubs in the states and territories. Next slide.
So then at the same time, we'll be starting our highest-risk group of serious disease. We all saw in the Victorian second wave the tragic deaths in aged care. And aged care and residential disability care settings will be starting next week, along with those other front-line workers across the nation, as Minister Hunt said.
And we'll be going into those facilities with special in-reach teams to vaccinate the residents, and other teams to vaccinate the workers. Next slide.
So, how can I find out more about being vaccinated in phase 1A? So the border and quarantine workers, the state and territory health departments are arranging those things, and they will notify you.
In residential and disability care, we are working directly with the operators of those residential and disability care services to work out the logistics of the rollout, when the teams will come in, to arrange consent.
And you will be vaccinated over the period of some weeks according to the schedule of rollout that the Minister’s talked about. But your facility will provide you that information. And we are so grateful to the facility management for their cooperation in doing this. Next slide.
How can someone prove that they’ve been vaccinated? Well, as we all know, it's now mandatory for all of these vaccines to be recorded in the Australian Immunisation Register - that is the law.
And so everyone's vaccination will be in the Australian Immunisation Register and it can be accessed through Medicare for proof of vaccination, both online and in a hard copy, as required. And your immunisation history will record both COVID-19 vaccinations following each dose.
Just to finish off with, I'd like to say a couple of things. This is a really, really exciting time, but we are about to start the single-biggest, and most complex, vaccination task in the history of this nation.
There are so many players involved and there's so much planning. We are so extraordinarily grateful in the Commonwealth to our partners in the states and territories, the vaccination workforce, the logistics and data providers, the aged care operators, who have been asked to do so much, so quickly, GPs and pharmacists who have expressed interest in being vaccination providers down the track.
We know we are asking a lot of everybody in this huge and complex task. And much of it is being done very quickly but safely. Our mantra has been we want to vaccinate Australia as safely and quickly as possible. We all want to protect our vulnerable Australians as soon as we can.
We know there will be bumps in the road as we commence this task, and unanticipated problems which we will solve together with our partners.
But as Minister Hunt said, we have no community transmission in Australia, we don't have a burning platform, so we can go as fast as we safely can do, and embark on this really, really exciting journey.
Just a question on the regional areas. Say I'm in Bunbury, where am I going to be getting my vaccine in the first week?
And my second question is regarding those hubs. If there are people protesting, as we've seen them do through the pandemic about the vaccine and so on, is there an idea of how that will be handled.
Given you've outlined the dangers of misinformation, and if people are literally near those hubs spreading that misinformation, have you got a plan on how to handle that?
Sure. That first group of towns, that was in relation to the aged care facilities themselves. So, we will be taking the vaccines with surge workforce that are well-trained and that have been through the vaccination programs to the facilities in those towns.
Those facilities have been notified and the residents are providing consent, or their families, where it's the family that's in a position to provide consent. So that outreach is occurring.
Secondly, the states are obviously responsible for the hubs. All of them have in place very cautious, sensible, appropriate security protocols, as they do with any hospital, but in particular they've taken that into account for now.
Minister, first of all, Richard Colbeck said mandatory vaccines for aged care workers remain an open question. Given the rollout starts next week, will a decision be made before then?
And Professor Murphy, if I may about the aged care centres, obviously at the moment we don't have enough vaccines for all the residents and staff, so what advice are you giving to aged care centres? Is it a 50-50 split between staff and residents? Or how does that rollout begin?
Do you want to go first?
So, in terms of mandatory vaccination, that is something that AHPPC is considering on a regular basis. And we are waiting until we have data on the transmissibility of the virus in vaccinated people.
If it is very effective, as we expect, at preventing transmission, once we have an opportunity for all of the workers to be vaccinated, that is something that will be reconsidered. That's something that National Cabinet has asked to reconsider on a regular basis.
At the moment, the plan is for aged care residents to get the Pfizer vaccine. We have enough Pfizer vaccine to roll that out to the maximum of our workforce over the next month or so.
So, it's a fairly short period of time. It will be getting that first dose out over the next three or four weeks.
The staff will mostly get the AstraZeneca vaccine. That will be a separate workforce that will go into facilities at different times.
The evidence from overseas is vaccinating the staff and residents at the same time is not actually a very effective way to do it. The staff vaccination programs have a different logistic need and will have a different workforce to do that.
So, we will have enough of the Pfizer vaccine to cover all of the aged care residents pretty quickly. And the AstraZeneca vaccine is coming online, we think, in early March and we'll be able to get the staff vaccinated pretty quickly first.
So, confirming those first few weeks, it’s purely aged care residents, not staff.
Yes, for the Pfizer.
Today what we’re setting out is the residents. Once we have the next round of material, because we wanted to focus- the medical advice was the greatest risk within 1A was quarantine and the aged care residents because of risk of transmission and vulnerability respectively.
Minister Hunt, just on those first batches of Pfizer vaccines that arrived this week, has batch testing been completed yet, and if so, have they started been rolled out to or transported to the states?
And Professor Murphy, if I may, so today we’ve seen Facebook not only banning news sites but also some important government health sites, blocking information to Facebook users. Are you concerned by that move, in terms of I guess, communicating important health advice with the public?
Any concern about misinformation more broadly in light of the rollout starting this week?
So, on that question, obviously we are concerned about anything that blocks legitimate sites of information, and I understand that Facebook has unblocked some of those sites that they inadvertently blocked, such as some health sites.
But we encourage the population to go to trusted sites. So, health.gov.au is the most important site for you to get COVID-19 vaccine information. There are some good material on social media but go to the trusted site, health.gov.au.
Okay now just in relation, firstly to Facebook. Let me say, we are profoundly shocked that they would take action that would affect health and appropriately related sites.
We understand that ACT Health, Queensland Health, South Australian Health, Dementia Australia sites, the Kids’ Cancer Project and Bowel Cancer Australia have all been affected.
I can't say whether or not they have been addressed in the last hour or so but the fact that the Kids’ Cancer Project could be affected is frankly a disgrace. Facebook should fix it and they should address that immediately.
Now more broadly, my understanding is there have been no problems found, and so far, all of the testing and details with regards to the vaccines are progressing as the TGA would hope.
The rollout will be formally over the course of the weekend with the logistics to make sure everything is in place. And so, the timing of the particular trucks, I’ll leave with DHL and the states, but we are on track for a Monday morning commencement.
Minister, how were the first aged care facilities that will receive the vaccine next week chosen. What was the selection process for that?
And further on aged care rollout, what do you expect the uptake to be for aged care residents in these centres? And what kind of communication process is happening with the residents to make sure they understand what's going on?
I will deal with the communication and I’ll let Professor Murphy deal with the selection process.
In terms of the communication, we have outreached both to facilities and to families – there’s a very strong communication program.
The facilities are providing advice and materials to residents, all those residents that aren't in a position to do that, to provide that to their family, consent is being sought in all cases. The take-up, we will judge it afterwards.
We know with the flu there has historically been a very solid take-up. We’re hopeful that we will see a high take-up. I respectfully won’t put a figure on it. And we’ll learn more as we go. But we’re positive about it, we’ve had a positive reception from the facilities.
In terms of the selection of facilities and the scheduling, that’s a complex logistic exercise.
As of already, we do not have community transmission, so there is no burning platform. It’s perfectly safe to take four of five weeks to vaccinate all of the aged care residents.
And the logistics teams have planned a very detailed logistics plan along with the distribution providers, along with surge workforce providers to get distribution across the country, and a schedule where they can move from one site to another.
So, that was a complex decision in the logistics team and we’ve notified those facilities in the first week and we’re continuing to notify others.
And they’re done in clusters, defined geographically to we make sure that we have the most effective distribution and that also preserves sanctity of the Pfizer process.
Can I just ask one further question on that, sorry. Just in terms of, obviously we’ve just seen the outbreak in Victoria, we’ve seen these other spot outbreaks, especially from hotel quarantine. Is there a contingency plan if there is an outbreak in a state, that we’d see a rush of vaccines go there?
Yes. We have contingency. If there were an outbreak, we would have contingency to vaccinate at risk people in that outbreak area.
And I will add one thing, one very important part of this is the goal to make sure that all border and quarantine workers are vaccinated within the first three weeks.
We are hopeful that most states and territories will be in a position to do that largely within the first two weeks. But of course, people will have leave, they may be ill, they may be on holiday.
But all up, we are making sure that there is sufficient vaccine sellers in their focus. They can address, in particular, their quarantine and border workers as early as possible.
Minister, on a different topic. There’s reports, claims this morning that members of the Government, employees of the Government are backgrounding journalists against Brittany Higgins and her current partner, making negative assertions about him.
Do you know anything about this, and if that was happening, would that be an appropriate thing for someone inside this building to be doing to, backgrounding journalists in that way?
No, I’ve not heard that, and I’m not aware of that. And our job is to provide the absolute maximum support. Both for Brittany, who’s obviously been through the most agonizing and horrific of personal experiences imaginable. And also to see real and lasting change as the legacy out of this.
Up at the back?
New South Wales has confirmed it will only be able to extract five, not the full six doses from each vile of the Pfizer vaccine because of the type of syringe available.
Are you concerned that we’re wasting up to a sixth of each Pfizer shipment, and what attempts are being made to obtain the correct syringe that ensures there’s no wasted shipment?
So, two things there. Firstly, I’ll let Professor Murphy address that particular thing. But from the outset, I think we said that we would distribute 80,000 in the first week, we were presuming 60,000 administered doses.
We’re hopeful that the actual result will be significantly higher. They’re being cautious and conservative, as they should be. But I know that Professor Murphy and the team have been directly with them on the medical logistics.
So, the standard syringes, which are widely used and which we have supplied in great quantity, they can't guarantee to get six doses.
Some people can get six doses because there is enough in the vial to get six doses there is no wastage but we understand, if you have a low dead space syringe it is much more reliable than you can get six doses.
And we’ve acknowledged with New South Wales Health that we won't hold them to getting six doses out of each file.
They will try their best, as will all vaccination providers. We have, on order, some low dead space syringes that will come in the future. But these syringes are the standard ones that are used for all vaccines.
When are we expecting those orders?
Well, in coming weeks. We’re not confirmed yet. But these syringes are absolutely fine, and many providers around the world are getting six doses, most of the time out of them.
I would just say this, when we ordered, we based that on the foundation of five, and more than that is a bonus, it's not the other way round.
More than that is a bonus, and New South Wales has been quietly working on getting the maximum, but we’ve been very cautious, they’ve been cautious in their expectations, more than that, would be a bonus.
Professor Murphy, to take the vaccine to this many aged care facilities will require a huge number of staff. Do you have a number of how many staff?
And to Minister Hunt, on the Facebook thing, if news organisations can't post links, people can’t post links to new stories, is there a risk that misinformation and anti-vax sentiment might rise in the wake of that big gap?
Yes, there is. There is a risk that if you cannot have accurate information, that those who wish to promulgate falsehoods and fictions can do so without a response.
I would say again to Facebook, think again, you may be in it for the money. But the rest of us are in it for safety, protection and responsibility.
This is the moment, to return to your origins. Where you were meant to be, as a company, focused on community, engagement, not on the money.
Forget the money, start growing up and making sure that you are about community and safety above all else, I'm sorry for such a strong response.
So, on the workforce we have engaged 500 direct specialist nurses who have been undergoing intensive training in the last few weeks to administer the vaccine in aged care.
That’s on top of the logistics providers who will be delivering vaccine to the facilities. It has been a very carefully planned outreach program, and we have the capacity to bring on more nurses if we need to.
So Jonathan and then one more?
Minister, just go back over the locations, I've not seen places like where Newmarch House is in New South Wales, I’m not seeing Eden Gardens. Is there a reason behind that, and what’s the number in the vaccination dosage you factored in for wastage? An exact number.
So look, all up the sites have been selected through a process of looking across the country, urban, rural, the risk matrix was developed by the Department of Health.
We always have to have somewhere that is first and then the whole of the chain. And they have done it on a risk basis for the country, as well as making sure there’s diversity across urban and rural, and all parts of Australia. So nobody is missing out.
We begin this process in the next week, and that's an immensely important thing. By definition, if in the first week, we're looking 60,000 doses, actually being administered, then that's the first part of Australia that will have it.
It may well be higher than that. But we are working on the basis of getting those out. On dose administration?
It's really important to recognise we have no community transmission at the moment, we have several weeks, to safely vaccinate our aged care facilities, and that's what we’re planning to do.
Clearly, if we had an outbreak we might change the schedule. But there is no impending serious risk at the moment, which is a great position to be in.
We factored in a small proportion of wastage. It depends on the vaccine. And we don't have a set figure at the moment but we’re going to monitor wastage very closely, particularly with those precious early doses.
One thing that we do want is, and the Health Department has been very strong on this. Where, for example, there’s an extra dose or two doses at the end of the day, just practical action, that if there are carers or nurses or other people who aren't in the target group but who are present, we don't want them to be wasted.
We want to give people the freedom to be practical Australians, to make sure that they are able to minimise any wastage.
Minister, just a follow-up on the Eden Gardens and the Newmarch issue, was there a consideration of not putting it into places like those homes in the first week because the virus has already been through those homes?
No. No. No, there wasn’t. We don't yet know- many of those facilities have new residents who weren’t exposed to the virus. That hasn't been a consideration.
The considerations has been simply a logistic one. We’ve got several weeks, we’re in a safe position; let’s do it in the most efficient way we can.
Everyone will be covered over the course of six weeks and it wasn't about individual facilities, it was about regions.
Professor Murphy, could you tell us more about the contingency for people using the vaccine supply in a potential outbreak, what metrics would be involved? Whose decision would it be? What would trigger it?
It would be, AHPCC has advised, collectively our governments, on whether an outbreak is of the significance. So, if there were a significant outbreak in a particular part of a city, then we would activate an AHPCC meeting.
And if they recommended, a ring vaccination process for a group of people or an area, then we would undertake that.
Would it me more than a few cases though?
Well, these things depends what the cases are. If they’re all in household contacts, as they were in the recent Victorian outbreak, it’s not so much a risk. If you had 19 community cases, it would be a different circumstance.
So I’ll just finish with this. I apologise.
I just have one question for Professor Murphy if that’s okay?
So around Pfizer and AstraZeneca for aged care homes. So, Richard Colbeck yesterday indicated, though, that some aged care residents may end up getting AstraZeneca. So can you just clarify?
That was our initial plan. But I think, and there may be some parts of the country where we may have real difficulty getting the frozen Pfizer to, but our intention at the moment is to try and get Pfizer to every aged care resident if we can.
If we can't, AstraZeneca is a very, very good vaccine which protects and there may have to be some facilities in very difficult areas. But the logistics team is going to try and get them to everywhere.
Can you just explain – sorry.
Sorry, I really do have to go for Question Time.
With the frozen Pfizer; will it be before it’s transported or will it be sort of packed in dry ice? Can you just explain?
Well, it will be defrosted before it’s transferred to the aged care facilities and then reconstituted on-site. So it lasts in the fridge for three or five days.
In the Pfizer hubs in the states and territories, it will largely be defrosted on the day of administration.
So the final thing is, today is the next step in the national vaccination rollout. Now we know where and we know who and we know how.
We’ll continue to provide more information, but with zero community cases today, Australia-wide, zero community cases yesterday, we are in a globally very fortunate position, thanks to the work of Australians.
We begin the task of providing more hope and more protection to Australians going forward and the vaccination rollout will proceed over the coming months and we ask as many Australians as possible to come forward and help protect themselves and protect their families and to protect their communities.
Thank you very much. Take care.