Coalition’s mass vaccination clinics will put strain on healthcare workforce, industry groups say

people in masks sit in a large hall
People wait at a vaccination centre in Melbourne. Victoria and ACT have the ability to mass administer vaccines but health industry bodies warn there are not enough trained staff for the Coalition’s planned mass vaccination clinics. Photograph: James Ross/AAP
People wait at a vaccination centre in Melbourne. Victoria and ACT have the ability to mass administer vaccines but health industry bodies warn there are not enough trained staff for the Coalition’s planned mass vaccination clinics. Photograph: James Ross/AAP

Last modified on Thu 15 Apr 2021 19.21 EDT

The nurses’ union, the Queensland government, and the peak doctors’ body have warned the deployment of mass vaccination clinics will place strain on Australia’s immunisation workforce.

The federal government is considering whether to set up mass vaccination clinics, which have been deployed successfully in the United States and the UK, to help accelerate Australia’s much-criticised rollout.

Experts have broadly supported using mass vaccination clinics in tandem with general practitioners as an effective means of distribution.

The Australian Medical Association and experts have warned that without greater supply certainty, there is little point in establishing such clinics, though the federal government is not intending to do so until later in the year, when it has a larger volume of domestic AstraZeneca production and additional Pfizer imports.

The Queensland health minister Yvette D’ath said the state is open to the idea but questioned where the workforce would come from to staff such clinics. She said she would be reluctant to release doctors and nurses from Queensland health.

“They really need to tell us how they will be funded and how they will be resourced, because you have to find the workforce to do it,” D’ath said. “I would be very hesitant to pull health workers out of our hospitals to run the mass vaccination centres, because I need them.”

Some jurisdictions, like Victoria and the ACT, already have dedicated vaccine clinics capable of delivering mass vaccination.

But ACT health minister Rachel Stephen-Smith said she wants to see a “steady supply of vaccines” before it expands their use.

“Before opening the clinic to more people, we need to be sure there is a steady supply of vaccines so people coming in for an appointment will definitely be able to be vaccinated,” she said.

Stephen-Smith said she would also “welcome any funding contribution” from the commonwealth to run the clinic.

Australian Nursing & Midwifery Federation federal secretary Annie Butler said mass vaccination clinics would run into “inevitable” workforce issues.

“We have concerns around getting the immuniser workforce, and I can understand why Queensland in particular would have concerns because across the country, the non-Covid health issues we’re having to deal with, they’ve had to get put on hold during the pandemic,” Butler said. “A lot of that is because the systems are swamped. In Queensland particularly, they’re having to deal with the Papua New Guinea issue.”

“Every time there’s an outbreak or a little cluster, what we hear from our members is that staff get pulled out of the acute sector to do testing and screening, so then those non-Covid matters build up again. It needs to be part of a proper overall strategy and plan.”

Last week, a group of researchers from the University of New South Wales released modelling estimating vaccine capacity for both general practitioner clinics and mass vaccination clinics. It found a small general practice could administer 100 doses every eight-hours, or 300 doses for a larger clinic.

Mass vaccination clinics, on the other hand, could deliver 500-1,400 doses in the same time.

The modelling found the dose per staff member rate for both GP clinics and mass vaccination clinics were roughly equal.

The findings, they said, supported the notion that both mass vaccination hubs and GP clinics be used, but only if GPs are enabled to vaccinate at their peak capacity.

“A diverse profile of vaccination sites, drawing on the benefits of different distribution modes, will help maximise the daily vaccination rate and vaccinate the Australian population against Covid-19 as quickly as possible,” they wrote in the Conversation.

Prof Peter Collignon, an infectious diseases physician with the Australian National University, expressed concern that mass vaccination hubs could take supply away from already undersupplied GPs.

Australian Medical Association president Dr Omar Khorshid said mass vaccination clinics should only be used once the additional 20m Pfizer vaccines are received.

Khorshid, who took a number of GPs to meet the prime minister on Thursday, also voiced concerns about the availability of an immunisation workforce to staff mass clinics.

“We don’t have a massive supply of nurses and doctors available to staff huge clinics and that’s why basing the bulk of the rollout in general practice is the right decision,” he said.

“The state vaccination centres aren’t actually going to be very big to start with because there isn’t much vaccine for them to give out. We get 135,000-odd doses of the Pfizer each week at the moment, that will increase later in the year. But there’s no point having a mass clinic and a very small amount of vaccines to deliver.”

The ANMF says the vaccination of the aged care workforce must be the priority. A recent survey by its Victorian branch found 86% of private aged care workers had not been vaccinated.

It has called for the federal government to hand over responsibility for aged care worker vaccinations to state governments.

“We need the aged care workforce vaccinated now as quickly as possible because we saw what happened in private aged care in Victoria,” she said.

The department of health was approached for a response. It said only that the issue would be discussed at national cabinet.

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