Doctors working in Pacific communities are warning the government can’t afford ongoing ‘teething’ issues when it comes to vaccinating those most at risk from Covid.
At a press conference last week, Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins said that during the early stages of the vaccine rollout “teething troubles” were to be expected, particularly at the bigger and busier centres. But GPs in South Auckland and Porirua, two of the communities where the programme is underway, say the rollout is falling seriously short in terms of both delivery and communication about eligibility.
In the last month, there have been a number of reports of people being turned away from vaccinations stations in South Auckland and being given incorrect information about who’s eligible. And due to the Ōtara site being so overloaded, the organisation running it is considering cutting its opening days to reduce the workload on vaccinators.
Dr Bryan Betty, medical director for the NZ Royal College of GPs, who practises in Cannons Creek, Porirua, says the Ministry of Health needs to “learn quickly and adjust what they’re doing” because as the international situation shows, the virus moves quicker through populations with underlying health conditions.
“The fact of the matter is Covid will come back into the country. So if we are going to open the borders, we need the majority of our population vaccinated,” he says.
“The biggest challenge is increasing capacity in places like South Auckland. They are going to need a mixed model from vaccinations centres, to large stadium events, to actually involving pharmacies and GPs. The more sites we have, the less this will be a problem.”
Mary is a Pacific GP who’s been working part-time at the vaccination station in Ōtara. She says she’s been frustrated that people are being turned away, as she knows this will reinforce vaccine hesitancy among Pacific communities.
“What I observed was that as word of mouth got out, people just rocked up, which is no problem. But because the communication wasn’t clear, [the station was] also getting a lot of bookings, and so they ended up turning people away, and that led to people abusing the staff because that expectation had been created.”
Mary says the vaccination helpline has also created confusion as some staff manning the lines did not appear fully educated on current eligibility criteria.
“I’ve also had issues when booking my own family members. The call centre person didn’t understand what the group definitions were, so I had to educate them about who’s eligible.”
Another Ōtara-based Pacific GP, Steve, says a number of his family members have also struggled to navigate the booking system. He’s worried that the confusion will have long-term consequences for the vaccination programme in communities like South Auckland. .
“If doctors like myself and my Pacific colleagues, who are pretty highly educated, are struggling to make sense of the system, how are our people going to react? They will walk out and not want to have a bar of the vaccine. Why would our people want to walk into any vaccination centre? It just reinforces the reasons why people distrust the health system overall.”
Both Mary and Steve asked that their real names not be used as their professional work often relies on the organisations administering the vaccine sites.
Dr Betty says the messaging to Pacific communities is lacking, noting that people “won’t suddenly travel 5km” to get vaccinated without clear communication from health authorities about what to expect.
“Their first vaccination experience needs to give them confidence that they will want to come back for the second vaccination.”
A spokesperson for the Northern Region Health Coordination Centre says the team running the Ōtara vaccination station has done a “phenomenal job” engaging with the community, resulting in “walk-in bookings from large groups including many large church groups”. If someone hasn’t been able to be vaccinated due to demand, efforts have been made to accommodate or re-book that person in for another slot, the spokesperson says.
“The only time anyone may have been turned away from the site is if they are not currently eligible to be vaccinated under the government’s scheduling framework.”
Regarding the messaging to the Pacific community, the spokesperson says a number of other initiatives are underway, and a targeted radio campaign begins this week.
“A Covid vaccination rollout handbook is being translated into eight Pacific languages for use online and by church groups. A youth-focussed campaign is currently in development with the ‘Do Good Feel Good’ youth collective. And a radio campaign in eight Pacific languages is being launched across key networks including the Pacific Media Network and Planet FM.”
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