Mixed messaging over vaccine frustrates GPs

Mixed government messaging over COVID vaccinations is adding to headaches for GPs, who are also trying to combat misinformation and vaccine hesitancy.

GIPPSLANDERS aged under 40 will now be able to access the AstraZeneca vaccine, following a major shift in federal government advice, but the Australian Medical Association is still urging people under 60 to wait for the Pfizer vaccine.

Local medical services are gearing up for a barrage of phone calls from patients confused about which vaccine to request.

In a surprise move, Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Tuesday announced that anyone under the age of 40 could now approach their GP and ask for the AstraZeneca vaccine.

The announcement followed an emergency meeting of the National Cabinet on Monday night.

AstraZeneca had been reserved for Australians aged over the age of 60, because of the risk of very rare risk of blood clotting disorders linked to the vaccine in younger people.

But during a press conference on Monday night the PM said those who wished to get the AstraZeneca vaccine were encouraged to discuss it with their GP.

“… we are also providing the indemnity scheme for those general practitioners so they can actively engage with you and you can make the best decision for your health,” he said.

When a journalist asked for clarity on whether that applied to any age group, the Prime Minister confirmed “the answer is yes, they can go and do that”.

“AstraZeneca is there for people to get vaccinated, and there are many points of presence — over 5000 GPs alone where you can get that done.

“And so, if people are concerned, as I’m sure they are, as I am, then I’d be encouraging them to go out and get that vaccination,” he said.

Operation COVID Shield coordinator general of operation Lieutenant General JJ Frewen said the government was this week bringing on an additional 236 GP practices that could administer AstraZeneca.

“That will bring us to more than 5000 GPs now across the country and a total of over 6000 places where people can access vaccines,” he said.

“And for those people who want to get access to a vaccine now who can’t get access to Pfizer, they can make an informed decision to get AstraZeneca through GPs — and the announcement the PM has made tonight will give GPs even greater confidence in their ability to provide that advice.”

The new advice is likely to leave local GPs to deal with a confused public.

Sale’s Clocktower Medical Centre says vaccine hesitancy is already a major hold up in people choosing to be vaccinated, with constant media “misinformation” adding to patient confusion.

Practice manager Caroline Driscoll said the clinic was notified overnight Monday that Astra Zeneca was now available to people aged 18 to 39.

“We are already dealing with a lot of phone calls from patients wanting to speak to their doctor for clarification and they generally have a lot of questions,” she said.

“The confusion certainly puts a heavy load on GPs, but that’s what we are here to do and we will take the time to speak to patients and give them the information they need to make an informed choice.”

Ms Driscoll said the clinic’s data showed that 45 per cent of patients over the age of 80 had still not been vaccinated.

“The confusion out there has led to hesitancy in the older groups, but these patients are the ones that really need to be vaccinated — they are the ones more likely to get seriously ill and are most at risk,” she said.

“Our doctors are having these conversations with patients so they can have confidence in their choices.”

Despite the federal government’s changed health advice, AMA president Omar Khordis has urged younger people to continue to hold out for the Pfizer vaccine, as advised by the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation.

The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners has weighed in, urging the federal government to urgently confirm details concerning changes to AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine eligibility and provide greater support for the nation’s GPs.

The government has also announced that a no-fault professional indemnity scheme will be introduced for the nation’s GPs and other vaccine providers.

The scheme covers COVID-19 vaccines approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration and approved for use in the vaccine program, including the AstraZeneca vaccine, which is provisionally approved for anyone 18 and over.

RACGP president, Dr Karen Price, said general practice needed notice when changes were made that impacted on the ability of GPs to provide patients with up-to-date information.

“The nation’s general practices had no warning of the announcements made [Monday] night and are now scrambling to figure out what this means for our patients,” she said.

“Phones are ringing off the hook at general practices across the country with people trying to book in, but general practices are not yet armed with the advice needed to implement this change in eligibility.

“Unfortunately, this is not the first time this has happened to general practice.

“It occurred with the launch of the vaccine booking site and the multiple changes made to age eligibility for the AstraZeneca vaccine.

“It makes the job of GPs that much harder when we are trying to get as many of our patients vaccinated as quickly as we can.”

The RACGP president said that the government also needed to clarify how the changes to AstraZeneca eligibility would work in practice.

“This morning [Tuesday], patients are ringing up general practices and being told different information because no one knows exactly how this will work,” she said.

She said the correct information needed to be made available to the general public right away, and GPs were at the frontline.

Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccinations are available in the Wellington Shire at: Gippsland Regional Sports Complex, Sale, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, 9.30am to 3.30pm; Wellington Respiratory Clinic, Inglis St, Sale, Monday to Fridays, 8.30am to 5.30pm, Saturdays 8.30am to noon; and Yarram Medical Centre, Tuesdays and Fridays 9am to 3.30pm.

Bookings must be made through the Victorian state COVID-19 Hotline, 1800 675 398, or online at portal.cvms.vic.gov.au.

Currently, AstraZeneca vaccinations are available at approved medical centres around the shire, including Ramahyuck Gippsland Family Practice, Sale; Maffra Medical Group; the Clocktower Medical Centre, Sale; Heyfield

Medical Centre; Sale Medical Centre; Stratford Medical Centre; and Johnson Street Medical, Maffra.

Book appointments by phoning 1800 675 398.

Walk-ins may be available at some clinics.

For more information about vaccination, go to health.gov.au/initiatives-and-programs/covid-19-vaccines/learn-about-covid-19-vaccines/about-the-astrazeneca-covid-19-vaccine#covid19-vaccination-resources.