27 May 2021

ACT Government takes reins on disability vaccinations and modifies Garran centre

| Dominic Giannini
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Rachel Stephen-Smith and Greg Hunt

ACT Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith and Commonwealth Health Minister Greg Hunt at a media conference outside the Garran vaccination centre earlier this year. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

Canberrans with a disability now have special access to the Territory-run Garran vaccination centre under a new initiative from ACT Health following complaints about the Commonwealth’s problematic vaccine rollout.

Longer appointments, measures to reduce sensory overload and a separate entry point into the facility have been rolled out to make the centre more comfortable for people with a disability.

Group vaccinations for disability homes will also be organised.

The ACT Government has been prodding the Commonwealth to let the Territory play a greater role in the vaccine’s rollout as the states and territories already had the infrastructure in place for mass vaccinations.

READ ALSO CT issues stay-at-home orders for travellers from Victoria

Behind the scenes, progress has been slow and communications have been choppy between ACT and Commonwealth officials and ministers.

The Commonwealth Government took control of the vaccine’s rollout for aged and disability care residents while the ACT Government was in charge of inoculating frontline workers when the first phase of the rollout started.

Until this week, ACT Government officials were in the dark about exactly how many people in disability care the Commonwealth had vaccinated in Canberra, despite numerous requests for numbers.

Less than a third of residents and workers in disability care had been vaccinated by mid-May despite becoming eligible to be vaccinated under phase 1A which started in February.

Craig Wallace

Head of policy at ACTCOSS Craig Wallace welcomed the more inclusive measure for people with a disability. Photo: Dominic Giannini.

The Commonwealth Department of Health told Region Media that “over 500 people with disability and disability workers in residential disability settings in the ACT have been vaccinated by the Commonwealth in-reach vaccination providers” as of 18 May.

This equates to around one-in-three of the 520 people living in disability residential care and 1,144 staff associated with 179 premises across the ACT who were eligible under phase 1A.

Some of the staff may work across multiple sites, so the total number of staff requiring vaccination could be lower.

READ ALSO Five years on from the “child in a cage” incident, why are children with disabilities still being restrained?

The head of policy at the ACT Council of Social Service (ACTCOSS), Craig Wallace, welcomed the new measures from ACT Health at Garran, saying there needed to be a greater focus on vaccinating people with a disability.

“Some people with sensory disabilities like autism find the crowded, chaotic, light-filled environment of a hospital or a clinic traumatising,” he said.

“What ACT Health is seeking to do is to create a space that is more calming and appropriate for people with those issues.”

Mr Wallace said the Commonwealth had neglected its responsibility and needed to prioritise vaccinating vulnerable people with a disability, especially with the current situation in Melbourne highlighting how volatile the virus can be.

“We still do not have enough people vaccinated from this group and as we are seeing, COVID is a very changeable situation,” he said.

“We really cannot wait, particularly for that vulnerable group who were meant to be prioritised.

“Anything we can do to make that experience easier and less traumatic for people, and to enhance their access to vaccinations, is welcomed.”

READ ALSO Parents given ‘false choice’ between mainstream and specialist disability schools

A Department of Health spokesperson said the Commonwealth continued to work with the disability sector to confirm how many people with disability had received vaccinations through options other than in-reach.

People with disability and disability workers over the age of 50 can access the AstraZeneca vaccine through a contracted provider in the community, such as a GP or respiratory clinic, while those under 50 could book into a states-run Pfizer hub, the spokesperson said.

But Mr Wallace said there had been little outreach and information provided to people with a disability from the National Disability Insurance Scheme throughout the pandemic.

Some people said the only outreach they received was information about getting groceries during early lockdowns, he said.

“That is not good enough,” he said.

“The NDIS has an obligation to check in on the welfare of their own clients, and it would be good if they were spending more time supporting people with disabilities in the midst of an emergency.

“Their number one job at the moment is to make sure that people with disability receiving their care and support are vaccinated and have all of the information and support to do so.”

The dedicated immunisation clinic for people with disability is co-located with the Garran clinic in a separate, quieter space. It now operates twice per week, on Tuesdays between 8:00 am to 12:00 pm and Thursdays between 2:00 pm to 5:00 pm.

To attend this clinic, call the ACT COVID-19 vaccination booking line on 5124 7700.

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