As the COVID-19 booster roll-out gathers steam across the country, Canberra’s pharmacies face a unique problem – people are so keen to get their third dose, they are trying to get them before becoming eligible.
One pharmacist has attributed this rush to people wanting to protect themselves and their families ahead of the festive season and interstate travel, as well as fears about the Omicron variant and a skyrocketing caseload in NSW, which recorded 2213 new infections today (17 December).
Capital Chemist group business manager Andrew Topp – who is also a pharmacist and a vaccinator – said while seeing people eager for their third doses isn’t necessarily a bad thing, he’s calling for calm, patience and common sense.
“If there are no bookings available online, please don’t call us, it won’t change anything,” Mr Topp said.
He’s concerned by people who say they “need” the booster dose to protect themselves when travelling, even if they haven’t yet waited long enough for it.
Mr Topp noted concerns the vaccine won’t develop its full efficacy if delivered ahead of schedule, ultimately making the effort a “waste of time”, in addition to creating logistic problems for pharmacies.
Right now, COVID-19 vaccinations have a complex reporting process associated with them, so they cannot just be put into arms. Instead, the pharmacist has to collect data from the patient and then match it with the Australian Immunisation Register.
“If you do all of that and then realise you can’t give the vaccine – well, that’s time that you could have used administering a dose to someone who could’ve got it.”
While there were some guidelines drawn up regarding the provision of a booster dose a little in advance of six months – for example, people who needed to visit elderly relatives in a nursing home or who were going to be travelling overseas – none have been set out for administering a booster dose before five months has elapsed.
“Our hands are tied. We literally can’t give a booster earlier than five months at the moment,” Mr Topp explained.
He added that last Saturday’s announcement from the Federal Government that revised the timeframe between second and third doses from six to five months also complicated matters.
An additional 40,000 Canberrans became eligible overnight, just as pharmacies began to receive their first lot of stock to cover the six-month cohort.
The ordering window for additional vaccine supply had already shut by this point.
As an example of just how quickly demand for boosters has grown since last weekend, one pharmacy has gone from administering three to four doses a day to administering 45.
“With no notice and no ability to surge staff and have access to that vaccine supply, it’s been very challenging,” Mr Topp noted.
No matter how much sharing around of supply goes on, pharmacies are running out and additional stock is not expected until Christmas Eve.
Ordering vaccines is not as simple as it could be, either.
Mr Topp explained it’s a “fine balancing act” to ensure adequate doses are available to those who need and want them, but there isn’t an oversupply as they have a very short shelf life and will have to be wasted.
He’s also critical of the “complex” vaccine ordering and delivery system which means pharmacies have a window of only a fortnight to put in an order for their required vaccines and the stock turns up “at some point in the next few weeks”. For other supplies, pharmacies have a well-established system for ordering drugs – including other vaccines such as whooping cough – which means supply often arrives a day after the order is put in.
“The government’s delivery service is very slow,” he said.
“It’s a huge oversight. Why wouldn’t we use a system that works?” he asked.
Mr Topp predicts that at some point, COVID-19 vaccines will become routine and the reporting process associated with them will become more manageable.
He hopes to see a more effective delivery system in place by then.