The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) is involved in the approval of the booster program and the Government believes it is likely that ATAGI’s advice will include a focus on aged care in the initial rollout.
The Government is also waiting on the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) to approve the Pfizer vaccine for the booster program. The manufacturer of Pfizer has been the only one to apply for the booster program, with Moderna and AstraZeneca yet to submit their booster vaccine application.
A critical meeting about the vaccine booster program, including advice on Pfizer, will be held next week, hopefully giving a green light to the program commencing before the end of the year.
While the Government is not wanting to prioritise any group for booster jabs, as they have enough vaccine stockpile to go around, they believe aged care residents will be first to get the third jab. Some immunocompromised people have received a third booster shot, but that was separate to the booster program.
Minister Hunt says, "There’s unlikely to be the need to prioritise because we have sufficient vaccine… But the simple thing is time. And because we have sufficient vaccine, we have a system capable of delivering. My understanding is every State and Territory has spare capacity at this point in time.
"So, we want to keep the machine running to keep the program rolling and that would mean we would be one of the first countries after Israel and I know consideration is on elsewhere if we were to move to a whole of population program.
"But that’s the ATAGI advice, it’s clear direction [that] is likely to go towards aged care. It’s likely that we’ll have general population [too] but we also have to actually have the ATAGI- TGA approval."
Minister Hunt added that the Federal Government has been working with the Victorian Health Minister, Martin Foley, in regards to aged care booster vaccinations as the State is closing in on its vaccine milestone rate and will likely start opening up like New South Wales.
He says Victoria is preparing to roll out the booster program to aged care residents as soon as the Government gets TGA and ATAGI advice.
The Government also wants to remind the public that you are fully vaccinated with two doses, and the third jab is just an extra protection shot.
Chief Medical Officer (CMO) of Australia, Paul Kelly, says that ATAGI is currently investigating the success of booster programs in different countries, particularly data from Israel, and it looks promising that the booster will give people added protection against COVID-19.
"I’m not going to pre-empt the ATAGI advice. But just going back to the Israeli data again, they found this was effective in all age groups. And so, and as the Minister has said, we have the supply, enough supply to give to all age groups but we’ll wait for the ATAGI advice on that.
"...When you think back to how we started the program earlier this year, there was a priority of older people, aged care, those 1A and 1B priority. So, they will be the first in line because they are now six or more months after that second dose."
As of 20 October, Australia reached a key milestone by reaching a 85.5 percent first vaccination rate and a 70 percent second vaccination rate.
Based on the Federal Government's COVID-19 roadmap, Australia will be moving towards reduced, or even "abolished", restrictions for vaccinated people.
Aged care sector still concerned about Australia reopening
Leading Age Services Australia (LASA) explains that the sector has a level of concern about the country opening up once Federal double dosed vaccination targets are met, especially as New South Wales and Victoria start to reduce restrictions.
Sean Rooney, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of LASA, says, "We’ve done everything we can to have the protections in place but as circumstances change we need to be able to move quickly in response to make sure our older residents and our staff continue to be protected.
"We’ve put forward a discussion paper to Governments which flags arising issues as we come out of lockdown and begin living with COVID in the community. A key issue is waning effectiveness of the vaccines for those who were vaccinated in March, April and May, and the need for booster shots. This would affect older people who were part of 1A and 1B priority groups and vaccinated six months ago.
"Like all things with the pandemic, we look to the scientific and medical experts to advise and direct us. With this in mind, we await advice from the medical experts in ATAGI on when booster shots are likely to be approved but we welcome the announcement by the Government yesterday that the rollout of booster shots could begin as early as next month."
He adds that the aged care sector has learnt a great deal through the challenges experienced during the first vaccine rollout for residents and staff in March and he hopes these lessons will assist in informing the design and delivery of the national booster vaccination program for aged care residents.
LASA will be looking to provide advice to the Government on what is needed to ensure an efficient and effective booster vaccine rollout for aged care.
Mr Rooney adds that it is crucial for residents, their families, and aged care staff to have confidence in the booster rollout.