The race to immunise a nation: Preparing to vaccinate NZ against Covid-19

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The next big Covid-19 challenge is looming – the race to immunise the entire country.

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A healthcare worker holds a Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine.
Photo: 2020 Anadolu Agency/ AFP

Training to administer vaccines should start next month, with up to 3000 more healthcare staff needed. But there are fears some people won’t accept the jab, and it’s them a government campaign will target.

The first people to be vaccinated against Covid-19 in New Zealand is not set in stone. It will depend if the virus is in the community or not.

If there is no community transmission, it’ll be border workers first; if there is, the elderly and those most at risk will be first in line.

University of Auckland vaccinologist Helen Petousis-Harris said once vaccines were here and authorised for use, there should be nothing holding up the vaccinations.

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Helen Petousis-Harris.
Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

That would mean we need a large number of full-time vaccinators all over the country, so as to not overload general practices, she said.

“It’s a massive undertaking, and you can’t take away all your health professionals from their normal work – you’ve still got to be doing all that routine stuff that occurs on a daily basis,” Petousis-Harris said.

The Ministry of Health will train 2000 to 3000 people to – one-by-one – administer the vaccine.

Immunisation training for doctors, nurses and pharmacists is likely to start next month, in time for the first shipments to arrive in March at the earliest.

“We get the delivery early on of the Pfizer [and BioNTech] vaccine, but these other ones are going to start arriving,” Petousis-Harris said.

“I think we’re going to see quite soon a situation where we’ve got a lot of vaccine, so you’re going to be able to open up the accessibility to much wider groups.”

College of General Practitioners’ medical director Bryan Betty expects specialist vaccine centres to open once the vaccine is available to the general public.

“Vaccines will be given in one of two ways: one, drop in clinics where people can drop in to get the vaccine; or two, to book ahead into a vaccination clinic,” Betty said.

A real-time immunisation register, which was being developed now, was critical to the success of the rollout, he said.

“If there’s different ways the vaccine is given either through general practice, drop-in clinics, or pharmacy, it will be incredibly important to collate data in real time to know who’s been vaccinated and who hasn’t. If there’s a two-dose vaccination three months apart, again it’ll be very important to know who’s been vaccinated and who needs to be recalled to get their second dose.”

The way the government communicates the hows and whys of the vaccine will also play a part in the success of the rollout.

Dr Bodo Lang.

University of Auckland marketing lecturer Bodo Lang.
Photo: Auckland University

University of Auckland marketing lecturer Bodo Lang said there were broadly three schools of thought around the vaccine – those who did not need any convincing to receive one, those sitting on the fence, and those firmly opposed to getting one at all.

The latter two groups were who the government’s marketing campaign would be directed toward, he said.

“This is both a cognitive – rational – decision and an emotional decision… I think the messaging, whatever it ends up being, needs to appeal to both – to the head and to the heart.”

Lang expected convincing those opposed would be an uphill battle.

The campaign would have to draw on a few approaches – appealing to both individualists concerned with their own health and freedom and collectivists who prioritised the good of society or a group, he said.

And maybe a word from an All Black or a famous musician might get the message across.

“Absolutely, celebrity endorsement will help. Most people probably won’t need it, but I think those who do need it that will really be helpful in pushing the message along,” Lang said.

“The key there is to find the right spokespeople that culturally, gender and age-appropriate.”

New Zealand has four vaccines on order: The first should start to arrive in March, with the bulk of the others beginning to get here around the middle of the year.

2021: ‘The year of vaccines’

A top Pasifika GP says New Zealand’s health providers must seize this opportunity to rectify the mistakes made during the measles outbreak in 2019.

Pasifika GP Network chair Api Talemaitoga told Morning Report clinicians were working with the Ministry of Health to help inform the community about getting vaccinated.

He said it was going beyond the mainstream education of the vaccine. The aim was for trusted Pasifika healthcare providers to become ready to deliver the vaccines and also for communities to get a better understanding of it.

“We want to use the infrastructure that we already have in place, like the churches.

“Covid has taught us a lot about what really works and we are trying to build on that.”

Talemaitoga is also part of the government’s Immunisation Implementation Advisory Group.

“We think 2021 will be the year of vaccines. Not targeting one particular vaccine but the strategy to inform, empower and to help the Pacific health workforce deliver – it’s about he measles catch-up campaign, Covid vaccine and the flu vaccine.”

He said the community had signalled that it was “ready” to work with GPs and the Ministry of Health.

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