Calls for 'feet on the ground' in COVID-19 vaccine rollout

The rollout of COVID-19 vaccines has been hit by delays in Australia. Picture: Shutterstock
The rollout of COVID-19 vaccines has been hit by delays in Australia. Picture: Shutterstock

The federal government could get "feet on the ground" and expand its COVID-19 vaccination delivery by using its network of primary health support and increasing the involvement of state governments, healthcare experts say.

Healthcare advocates have said the government could draw more on its federal primary health networks in delivering vaccines and speeding up its troubled rollout.

However the federal Health Department said the networks were not responsible for delivering clinical services and pointed to vaccine supply as the largest challenge in the early stages of the national rollout.

The calls for changes to the government's vaccine distribution plan coincided with assurances from federal health officials on Tuesday that talks were progressing on securing another vaccine, produced by Novavax, to protect against the coronavirus.

Therapeutic Goods Administration official John Skerritt on Tuesday said trials of the Novavax vaccine had shown "very promising early results", but the company was yet to establish its large-scale manufacturing arrangements for supply.

The government also faces mounting pressure over its vaccine distribution networks, as Labor and healthcare experts question the rollout's reliance on GPs for its delivery program.

Australian Healthcare and Hospitals Association chief executive Alison Verhoeven said the federal government had the health architecture to deliver vaccinations.

Its primary health networks had earlier played important roles in setting up respiratory clinics in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Ms Verhoeven said.

"That's the one bureaucratic structure that the federal Department of Health has out at regional level, on-the-ground, to deliver services," she said.

"They used the Primary Health Networks to work with local general practice and others to operationalise respiratory clinics. They could have done this also around mass vaccination clinics as well, in partnership with the state health departments."

Ms Verhoeven rejected commentary blaming the division of health-delivery responsibilities between federal and state governments for delays, saying there was an "easy way around that".

"Some of this is about: what are the logistics of reaching the Australian population more broadly using all of the available resources we have? At the moment we're not using them all," she said.

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Ms Verhoeven said the federal government had been overly ambitious in its rollout plan in failing to establish mass vaccination centres, which were part of the health emergency infrastructure in nations with faster vaccine rollouts.

Grattan Institute health and aged care program director and former Health Department secretary Stephen Duckett said the federal government's vaccine rollout strategies had focused on using two Commonwealth levers for healthcare delivery - the Medicare Benefits Schedule, and the government's agreement with pharmacies.

"These were things that the Commonwealth is clearly in charge of, and their mechanisms were mechanisms they understood," he said.

"If we were going to talk about mass vaccination centres, there's no mechanism for the Commonwealth to do that."

Dr Duckett said primary health networks could be used for the delivery of COVID-19 vaccines. However the networks were small, and the government had tightly controlled their staff numbers, he said.

State-run health infrastructure could play a larger role in speeding up vaccine delivery.

"If you want to get mass numbers through, you have to have feet on the ground, which comes back to either PHNs or the states. And basically the states are the ones that have got the scale to do this sort of thing."

Labor's health spokesman, Mark Butler, said the federal government should further involve state governments in the rollout.

"At the end of the day it is the states that deliver these big health services, through hospitals, through other parts of the public health system and so I don't understand why ... we don't have large vaccination centres, probably being operated by state public health systems, to get our numbers up," he said.

The Health Department said the largest challenge in the early weeks of the rollout had been vaccine supply.

Primary Health Networks had assisted in co-ordinating and planning vaccine delivery, and played a key liaison and support role with GPs, the department's spokesperson said.

"PHNs are not responsible for the delivery of clinical services," the spokesperson said.

More than 1.23 million COVID-19 vaccine doses had been administered by Monday.

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This story Calls for 'feet on the ground' in COVID-19 vaccine rollout first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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