The Hunter Medical Research Institute’s Professor Nathan Bartlett is stressing the urgent need for residents, including young adults, to be vaccinated and is strongly backing the most available vaccine in this area, AstraZeneca.

University of Newcastle and HMRI researcher Professor Nathan Bartlett.

Head of the HMRI Viral Immunology and Respiratory Disease Group Associate Professor Nathan Bartlett said vaccination was key to improving residents’ chances of protection against COVID-19.

The current phase of the vaccine rollout deems many young Novocastrians ineligible for the Pfizer vaccine but Professor Bartlett is encouraging people to consider AZ, saying “it’s just as good as Pfizer”.

“AstraZeneca is a good vaccine. It was approved by the TGA based on all the stringent clinical data assessments undertaken,” he said.

The Therapeutic Goods Administration has emphasised the protective benefits of vaccination against COVID-19 far outweigh the potential risks.

However, some residents aren’t convinced. Professor Bartlett partly blames the hesitancy on media coverage of the vaccines.

He said media coverage on the data itself was correct and that reporting risks linked to the vaccine was important, but he considered the coverage to be “unbalanced”, saying it neglected to mention that all medications carry a risk of side effects and severe adverse reactions.

“You don’t get a second chance at making a first impression, and unfortunately the first impression around AstraZeneca was that it wasn’t as good as Pfizer and it has a chance it would kill you.”

He said as Australia “didn’t have many active cases at the time, it’s what the media tended to highlight so that was the overwhelming belief in the community”. As a consequence, citizens missed a valuable window of opportunity to get vaccinated before the new outbreak occurred. 

“It was something that encouraged complacency around the inevitable outbreak of Delta in Australia.”

US teaches dark lesson

As a warning to Australia, Professor Bartlett referred to recent devastating developments in the US.

“There are states in the US who have really high vaccination rates, and there are states who are experiencing much lower rates of vaccination, and those states are having a massive surge of Delta infection, hospitalisation and death,” he said.

“It’s overwhelming hospital systems and it’s all unvaccinated people.”

In Louisiana and Mississippi, where vaccination rates rank low in the nation’s bottom three states, officials say unvaccinated COVID-19 patients are occupying big numbers of ICU beds. 

Some 46 per cent of ICU beds are taken by COVID-19 patients in Louisiana, and 45 per cent are taken in Mississippi. 

While vaccination does not offer complete protection against COVID-19 infection, it makes it less likely and protects against severe illness, hospitalisation and death. 

The situation in the US is one that Professor Bartlett says is “completely preventable”. 

“These people have a choice to get vaccinated. They have an abundant supply of mRNA vaccines like Moderna and Pfizer, and they’re choosing not to get it.”

Professor Bartlett said unlike vaccine hesitancy in Australia, which he believed was caused by “unbalanced messaging”, citizens in the US were resisting due to “huge anti-vaccination sentiment”.

He said it was a belief system that was killing hundreds a day. 

“They’re dying, killing their family members, their friends, their neighbours and transmitting the virus.

“You hear these monologues where COVID-19 victims are on their death beds saying refusing the vaccine was a mistake, hours before they die.”

It’s a lesson on vaccination he said Australians needed to understand.

“Vaccines are a pre-emptive thing. You can’t get the disease, then opt for the vaccine. You’ve got to think ahead.” 

According to the Morning Consult, Australia ranks second, one place above the US, in resident vaccine hesitancy, with 31 per cent of Australians uncertain or unwilling to get the vaccine as opposed to 30 per cent of American citizens. Russia claimed first place in the survey of people in 14 countries, with 47 per cent of citizens uncertain or unwilling to get the vaccine.  

Professor Bartlett said there were more risks involved in driving to a vaccine appointment than there were getting the jab.

The Hunter’s young people, however, have encountered difficulties in accessing vaccinations. Those who are eligible for Pfizer have been unable to make appointments at the mass vaccination hub due to lack of supply. AstraZeneca, for those who choose to have it, is becoming more accessible as pharmacies get on board with the vaccine rollout from Monday.

Hunter New England Health’s Facebook page today said: “Compared to the outbreak last year, we can see a definite change to the age of infection during this outbreak.”

It posted a graph, below, which shows “since 5 August, Hunter New England has seen a higher proportion of younger people infected, with the age rising as it came into contact with aged care facilities”.

There are hopes the Federal Government’s procurement of 25 million Moderna doses for September will assist in freeing up vaccination appointments.

State and Federal governments have said they will continue supporting the Hunter region with vaccine supplies. This includes the restocking of vaccines recently reallocated to Year 12 students in Greater Sydney. NSW Health has started reinstating vaccination bookings in the Hunter that were cancelled due to the recent reallocation. 

COVID-19 vaccination clinics include: 

  • Hunter Health Hub, Hamilton 
  • John Hunter Clinic 
  • University Health Services – Callaghan Campus
  • Belmont Mass Vaccination Hub
  • Charlestown Medical and Dental Centre, Charlestown
  • Charlestown Family Medical Services, Charlestown
  • Hello Health Family Practice, Wallsend
  • Cardiff Medical and Skin Cancer Clinic, Cardiff
  • Providence Medical, Warners Bay
  • Sanctuary Medical Practice, Fletcher
  • Raymond Terrace Respiratory Clinic 

Local pharmacies offering the vaccination include:

  • Bagga’s Pharmacy Hunter Street Mall – walk- ins
  • Piggott’s Pharmacy Blackbutt – book online
  • Blooms the Chemist Belmont – book online

Although many clinics are encouraging people to book vaccination appointments via the HotDoc website, some may take bookings over the phone. 

For more information on vaccination, people are encouraged to visit the NSW Health website

Maia O’Connor

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