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Why Australia shouldn’t simply expect all health workers to get a COVID jab

While healthcare workers will be able to join the front of the COVID-19 vaccine queue, some might skip it entirely.

In an article written for The Conversation, Associate Professor Holly Seale from UNSW pointed out that health systems represent a microcosm of the community.

Seale said: “Just like in the broader community, there will be health workers highly motivated to get the COVID-19 vaccine, driven by concern about risk to themselves, their family and their patients. There will also be those who have medical conditions, those that may not be able to get vaccinated, and staff who are hesitant.

“There will also be health workers with questions about the vaccine, who perhaps need further support to help them decide.”

The Australian Government said it plans to start rolling out COVID-19 vaccines to high priority groups from mid-to-late February.

Adjunct Professor John Skerritt, deputy secretary for health products regulation at the Department of Health, heads up the Therapeutic Goods Administration and said this week it was his job to assure Australians any vaccine approved for use across the country was safe, effective and met the same standards required for all medicines.

“If the TGA approves it, you can be assured it will work against COVID-19 by dramatically reducing the number of people becoming severely ill or who die from the virus," Skerritt said.

“Following approval, our role continues as we closely monitor vaccine safety and assess the quality of every batch being supplied in Australia.”

He added that while other countries that have faced more COVID-19 deaths, like the United States and United Kingdom, have granted temporary emergency authorisations, Australia’s approach will “ensure people have greater confidence in the vaccines, to achieve the best possible public health outcome”.

Seale said reports from the US put vaccine hesitancy among health workers at around 29 per cent but noted that rates can vary between countries.

She added that protecting health workers isn’t just critical for their own protection, it will also support high levels of uptake among the general public.

In a press conference held last week, chief medical officer Professor Paul Kelly said confidence was key to Australia’s vaccine plans.

Kelly said: “There are some people that just don't believe in vaccination… We know the majority of Australians are in favour of vaccination generally and our surveys that we've done in relation to the COVID vaccine have been very positive in that regard. There is a group, though, in between those two extremes… where confidence is absolutely the most important thing.

“People will be nervous, of course, and we need to give more information and we're doing that.”

Seale said it’s important to remember that not all health workers are vaccine experts.

“If we want to ensure they feel comfortable to receive it and advocate for it, then we must address any misunderstanding and concerns health workers may have. This may be focused on the vaccine itself (how it was developed, effectiveness and so on), or the necessity of vaccination."

One strategy she put forward to help was to support middle managers to act as vaccine advocates and agents of change.

“If a COVID vaccine becomes an occupational requirement for health workers, hospitals and other organisations need to include middle managers in the development and roll-out of programs. They can then help ensure staff members understand the rationale for the mandate, which staff members are targeted and why.

“Investing in the staff responsible for delivering vaccines in the workplace, as well as other potential vaccine allies such as managers, can help reduce COVID vaccine hesitancy among health workers.

“That will benefit all of us,” Seale said.

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