Top 3 COVID-19 vaccine questions – Vaccinated travel, booster differences, and COVIDSafe festive events

Dr Lucas De Toca, COVID-19 Primary Care Response First Assistant Secretary, answers the top three questions across our channels.


Good morning. I'm Doctor Lucas De Toca. Today, we will be answering some of the most commonly asked questions that you have been posting on our social media channels. I'm joined today by Linda as always who is going to be doing auslan interpreting, thank you. We are in the land of the Ngunnawal people, and I also acknowledge the traditional owners of the lands where you may be watching from. A big shout out today goes to the hard-working staff at the national coronavirus helpline managed by health direct. The national coronavirus helpline since March last year has been entering millions and millions of calls about COVID-19 from millions of people who have been calling from across the country. It operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and has been providing answers on whether people should get a test, common questions about COVID, common questions about the vaccine or how do restrictions work in different states? It has been a really useful resource and I recommend that you use it and check it out if you haven't before. It is on 1800 020 080. It can also help you find appointments for your vaccine if you still haven't had a chance to get vaccinated and it can answer a whole range of questions on COVID-19. It also connects to the translating and interpreting service line so if you need interpreting support it can connect that for you. So, check it out and thank you for all the work you are doing, staff from the national coronavirus helpline.

Today, we have a bit of a theme about how to stay safe when visiting unvaccinated friends or relatives of people who cannot get vaccinated. How to run COVID safe festivities as the festive season approaches. Then we are going to clarify some concepts around third doses versus boosters, so let's get to it.

First question today is what should I do if I'm travelling with someone who is not eligible for vaccination or cannot get vaccinated for medical reasons? Which, as we know, is a very, very small number of people, very, very small, rare, situations in which someone is not medically able to get a vaccination. Unvaccinated people are becoming very rare, as over 90% of people 16 years and over in Australia have received at least one dose of the vaccine and over 85% are fully vaccinated, which is fantastic and thank you all for going out and getting vaccinated. The usual precautions apply. If you are vaccinated yourself that is a good layer of protection, as vaccination protects not only from severe disease, hospitalisation and death, but also lowers the chances of you contracting the virus in the first place and even if you contract it, it lowers the chances of you infecting others. Nothing is completely fail proof and perfect so you still have a risk of acquiring the infection and transmitting it to others even though the risk is much lower and then your risk of getting sick from the infection is even much, much, much lower if you are vaccinated. The first thing you can do to protect colleagues and family members who for whatever reason cannot get vaccinated if you're travelling with them is to be vaccinated yourself. That includes your children which at the moment cannot receive a vaccine because the vaccine has only been approved for people 12 years and under at this stage. While the Therapeutic Goods Administration reviews the evidence and maybe in the next weeks and months, we will get some advice on the use of the vaccine in people aged 5 to 11 years of age. Be vaccinated is the first layer of protection and then do the usual things that you have been doing for the last 20 months to reduce the chance of transmission. Wear a mask on public transport or in other situations where you may be in a crowded space and you cannot safely maintain physical distance. If you can maintain physical distance so that there is a lower chance of receiving aerosols that may contain the virus from other people. Ventilation is really important so if you have events that are outdoors that might help with that. Then the usual sort of heightened hygiene practices we've been practicing over the last 20 months, wash your hands frequently with water and soap, if water and soap is not available hand sanitiser, with at least 60% alcohol. Cough into your elbow, sneeze into your elbow and wash your hands after sneezing and coughing. As always, if you have any symptoms no matter how mild they are that are any similar to a cold or flu please isolate, stay at home, get tested and stop isolating only after you get your negative test result. That is still the best way to pick up hidden COVID in the community. It's also a good idea to check the COVID-19 restrictions in your state and territory to make sure that the state you are travelling to does not have different settings to the one you're coming from. There might be differences in COVID restrictions between the cities and the regions, so check that out. The website from each of their states and territories health departments will have plenty of information on that. Alternatively, healthdirect who ran the national coronavirus helpline on has a restriction checker. Where you can look for each state for different activities and look at the current pandemic settings are. You can also call the coronavirus helpline to get that same information.

The second question for today is what's the difference between boosters and third doses? We have been talking about boosters and third doses, what is the logic behind that? It's a bit confusing, so it's a really good question. Especially since we first announced following the medical advice a program for third doses for severely immunocompromised people and then a few weeks later we announced a booster program for people who have had their second dose six months prior. So, what is the deal? Why are these things different? Conceptually, a booster is an additional dose of the vaccine that you will receive after your primary course. The primary course are the two doses that mean you are fully vaccinated. To make sure that you get, well, literally a boost to your immunity, but also the protection get from the vaccine lasts for longer. There is some indication that there is a bit of waning of infection, six months after the second dose. There is a few antibodies circulating. There is still strong protection from cellular response so people are still less likely to be severely impacted by the disease, but it is now very clear that a booster six months after your second dose or later will provide that additional kick. Your response will be stronger and will last for longer, that is a booster. You are already vaccinated, you received primary course, you've achieved a good immune response, but we are making sure you maintain that going forward. There is a good indication that the third dose of the vaccine as a booster will significantly prolong the protection that you have. We will still keep analysing the evidence to see what that means long term and whether we need more boosters, which could be the case or not. It could be that after that first booster the immune response is sustained and we might not need one for a few years. As happens with other vaccines, that we just need two or three doses to commence. The third dose for severely immunocompromised individuals is slightly different. So, this is a response to a situation in which if someone's immune system is a bit weakened, whether because they have a condition that affects some aspects of their complexity that is their immune system, or more commonly because of some sort of medication or treatment regiment that decreases their immune system. Like many people in chemotherapy, radiotherapy to treat cancers, or people who are in immunosuppressant therapies because they received an organ as part of a transplant or some of their really high intensity treatments for some autoimmune diseases or arthritis. For whatever reason your immune response is weakened, and your system cannot mount the same degree of response as if you weren't in the treatment or you didn't have that condition. What evidence has shown is that two doses may not be enough to trigger that fully immunised response for someone with a non-weakened immune system would trigger. In this case the third dose for a very small group of Australians who are in a situation of severe immune compromised, it is not a booster. It is aiming at achieving the same level of protection that people who are not immunocompromised would receive from two doses, but evidence shows that two doses may not be enough and third dose two to six months after the second dose might be what they need to get them up to the same level of response a fully immunised non-immunocompromised person with two doses. Third doses, small number of people, part of the primary course to be fully vaccinated, two to six months after your second dose and only if you are severely immunocompromised, often because of a medical treatment you are undergoing. Boosters, the whole population 18 years and over if you had your primary course and your second dose six months or more before, you can go and get your booster to make sure that your immune response to the virus is as strong as it can be and that protection lasts for longer. A little bit complicated and the messaging for these things is always tricky but slightly different concepts but ultimately if you're 18 years and over and you've had your second dose, six months or longer ago, and you can see that on your vaccine certificate, it shows the date of your second dose. Six months from then, book an appointment at any GP, pharmacy, state clinic or aboriginal health service. Go and get your booster so your response can be as strong as it can be in for a longer time.

Final question for today, what things can we do now the we are approaching the festive season? There are going to be events everywhere, work functions, family events and family fights. The usual that we all experience when the festive season comes through. How can we do that as COVIDSafe as possible, noting that of course gatherings always have some level of risk. The biggest piece of advice and we are very lucky here in the southern hemisphere that the December period when so many festivities for so many groups and communities like Christmas and Hanukkah and many others are happening is during summer. The best thing that you can do to reduce your risk, your COVID rest, during functions or festive events is to do it outdoors. The risk of COVID transmission outside is dramatically lower. If you can do it at a park, picnic, barbecue, down at the beach, the usual Ausssie things, I think. I recommend that you do that because that's probably the lowest risk setting you can have to have a gathering with family and friends. If it's not feasible and you can't or it's just not how you do it to be outdoors, and you're doing it indoors. Try to make the space as ventilated as possible, windows open, a draught would be great. Well ventilated indoor spaces have a lower risk of COVID transmission than poorly ventilated once because if there is any aerosols or any particles in the air of the virus they just stay. Where if it is well ventilated the air gets replenished and the chances of you inhaling or getting in contact with viral particles is much lower. Then of course the usual, provide hand sanitiser if possible so that people can wash their hands and surfaces if possible. Up your hand hygiene regime even more than you have over the last 20 months especially if you're involved in the food preparation of serving dishes or passing food. Clean high touch surfaces like light switches and all of that which reduce the chances of contamination. It is important to remember the biggest risk of COVID transmission is not necessarily for what we call fomites. Which is inanimate objects where the virus might live on surfaces. It is actually that person to person, being close to people. Breathing the same air and being in a close space. If you can, please do it outdoors or in a well-ventilated space. Of course, if all of your guests have any symptoms, even if it's really mild, consider rescheduling because you will need to isolate and get a test before finishing isolation. It's really awkward especially when you want to catch up with your loved ones if suddenly someone can't come because they have a cold and it's probably just going to be a cold and they are just going to feel a bit bad for a couple of days but then it will be nothing. The problem is we don't have a way to know whether it is nothing or if it is actually COVID unless you get a test and you get a negative result. It is an awkward conversation at times but it's important that maybe before the event you are open on the fact that, you have to protect everyone. Especially those who cannot get vaccinated like children, if someone has any symptoms either if possible, the event can be rescheduled or unfortunately that person cannot come until they get a negative test result. It's super awkward, but again some of the festive season activities are awkward in themselves.

That's all for today, sorry we went a bit long. Thank you for listening if you are and thank you for continuing to practice COVIDSafe behaviours and see you next week.

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  1. What should I do if I am travelling with someone not eligible for vaccination, or who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons?
  2. What’s the difference between a booster dose and a third dose?
  3. What things should I consider if I am wanting to host a COVIDSafe festive event this year?
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