Queensland reopening plan caught in catch-22 as Covid vaccination rate lags national average by 10%

Despite the premier saying restrictions would ease when at least 80% of over 16-year-olds were fully vaccinated, there has been no notable spike in uptake

Queensland’s Covid vaccination rate is lagging the rest of Australia, with health experts warning targeted messaging is needed to boost uptake and protect vulnerable people.

The state was projected to pass 80% first dose vaccination on Tuesday, 9 November. But, with an average of 10,000 people jabbed a day in the past week, it has only just passed national cabinet targets.

Queensland’s vaccination rate for first doses remains almost 10% lower than the national average, with 80.1% of Queenslanders having received a vaccine compared with 89.69% nationwide.

Among the Indigenous population, the vaccination rate is even poorer. Just one region in Queensland, west Brisbane, has reached 70% first dose targets among the Indigenous population, while in Cairns the figure is just 41.8%.

Epidemiologist Catherine Bennett said that while the vaccination uptake was slowest among young adults, in part due to delayed access to the vaccine, the lag was “much more marked” in Queensland.

At least 90% of over-60s in Queensland have received at least one vaccination dose, but among 12 to 29-year-olds that number falls to less than 65%. Just 55% of 12-to-15-year-olds have received a vaccination dose, and 34.6% are fully vaccinated.

“It’s the most dramatic discrepancy from other states,” Bennett said. “They’ve had supply ahead of demand now long enough we should be seeing it catch up.”

The premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said restrictions would ease when at least 80% of over 16-year-olds were fully vaccinated, expected around 17 December. But since the announcement, there has been no notable spike in uptake.

Walk-in vaccination hubs have rolled out across hundreds of Queensland sites – in surf life saving clubs, Bunnings carparks, theme parks and entertainment precincts – since the roadmap was released. Social media campaigns are also being prepared to target the youth demographic.

Bennett said messaging from former Queensland chief health officer Jeannette Young regarding AstraZeneca risks for younger people earlier in the pandemic may have dissuaded some.

“That might’ve … had a broader impact on the view of vaccines generally,” she said.

Bennett said Queensland was now in a catch-22 situation. “They won’t be able to open without a higher vaccination rate, but they’re not going to set the date to motivate people,” she said.

“Restricting activities for the unvaccinated will be the last push … hopefully that will bring things forward.”

When Queensland hits the 80% vaccination target, unvaccinated people will be unable to visit public sites including hospitals, aged care services, hospitality venues and sporting stadiums, and masks will no longer be required indoors.

Palaszczuk has also made the vaccine mandatory for all health staff across aged and disability sectors.

“A lot of the pushback doesn’t seem to be so much about myths but being told what to do which is equally difficult … if hesitancy is real, you have to share the facts,” Bennett said.

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University of Queensland associate professor Tom Aechtner said while there was no single reason for the sluggish vaccine uptake, being “largely spared” from major outbreaks was a factor.

“Added to this is underlying distrust, anxiety about side-effects, and misinformation.”

Aechtner’s research into vaccination has found that while vaccine hesitant people come from a wide range of backgrounds, beliefs, and education, a common uniting attribute is who people trust and distrust.

“Individuals who are most hesitant are inclined to distrust government the most, and express greater distrust of pharmaceutical companies, scientists, and new vaccine technologies,” he said.

“Fear about the side-effects and unknowns of Covid-19 vaccines, mixed with widespread misinformation … both feeds into and validates hesitant people’s pre-existing distrust and anxieties about the vaccines.”

Convenience is also a factor. Aechtner said for regional Queenslanders, getting vaccinated could require significant travel and time commitments.

ANU associate director Nicholas Biddle agreed. He said a combination of access, mistrust in institutions and socio-economic difference had played into the disparity of the vaccination rollout in regional areas and in Indigenous communities.

“These differences have been observed across Australia, and when we analyse Queensland specifically we find they hold,” he said.

“Equally … when we analyse the demographic and socio-economic determinants of vaccine uptake using our most recent survey data … Queensland, along with Western Australia, South Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory still have lower rates of vaccination.”

Since the rollout began, more than 300 outreach clinics have been established in rural communities to expand vaccine accessibility, on top of community-controlled health services in First Nations communities.

Biddle said vaccine mandates could make a difference, however they may be counterproductive and unnecessary.

“Target those who are most at risk or reluctant, and put a much greater focus on providing convenient access,” he said. “Giving salient information … utilising trusted spokespeople to reassure people about the very low risk … but taking people’s ongoing concerns seriously.”

A Queensland Health spokesperson said in a state as decentralised and diverse as Queensland, the vaccination rollout was “no small feat”.

“We have been working hard to make the vaccine as easy and convenient to access as possible,” they said.

“Given the scale of the vaccination rollout, diversity of Queensland’s population and the remoteness of some communities, it’s not unexpected that some regions and specific age groups will have lower rates than others, and this may be for a range of factors.

“This may include hesitancy, cultural reasons, misinformation in the community and the remoteness of the community which means they have been largely unaffected by Covid restrictions.”


Caitlin Cassidy

The GuardianTramp

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