COVID-19: GPs, pharmacists concerned health system isn't ready for 'ramped up' vaccine rollout

A healthcare worker prepares to administer the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
A healthcare worker prepares to administer the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Photo credit: Getty Images

The vaccine rollout is fast approaching the "ramp up" phase where increasing numbers of people can book in for a COVID-19 vaccine - but is the health system ready?

By the end of June just under half a million people were fully vaccinated. There are around four million still to go, including thousands of higher priority people in groups one, two and three.

Dr Rawiri McKree Jansen (Ngāti Raukawa and Ngāti Hinerangi), a GP and the clinical director of the National Hauora Coalition network of 54 practices, is confident the health system is up to the job but said there was still a largely untapped workforce of non-regulated health workers, like kaiāwhina, health care assistance and whānau support.

"We've finally got a programme that we can train them to be vaccinators and give the injection. That should release a whole lot of the workforce, that is currently nurses doing almost all of this.

"We should be able to release those nurses to be able to do those parts that they specifically need to do."

The Government had been slow to recognise the value of this workforce, let alone train it, McKree Jansen said.

"It is still really slow to get this workforce through and trained and deployed. I think that is unnecessary and it's disappointing that it's taken so much time and effort. It should've been in play by now and it's only starting to trickle in."

Pharmacies are already prepared to be part of the rollout in the next few months.

Pharmacy Guild chief executive Andrew Gaudin said so far DHBs had been slow to get them involved but there may be a good reason for that.

"I think the DHBs have intentionally gone a little bit slower because they haven't had the vaccine in play. So they don't want to reach out and create expectations in the community, ahead of there being vaccines available."

Medsafe has granted provisional approval for people as young as 12 to get the Pfizer vaccine.

Principals' Federation president Perry Rush said schools would play an important part in the rollout, and he wanted more details fast.

He said they wanted the assurance of hearing as soon as possible "but of course that really is up to the Government to work through their processes".

"I suspect there may have been issues around confidence of supply in regards to the vaccine, and so they may have been reticent up until this point about communicating a plan. We certainly would encourage them to do that at pace."

It's estimated about half of all general practices will help deliver the injections. Each of them has to go through a DHB-led assessment process before they can take part.

College of GPs medical director Dr Bryan Betty is confident they can do the job - the real problem would be if the vaccines were slow to arrive.

"I'm hopeful that once general practice really does start to come into line, that certainly access to the vaccine will become a lot easier. Certainly, I think, at this point, inability to access vaccines is probably going to be more about the supply of vaccines into the country.

"So, if there is disruption to the supply because we're part of a global supply chain then that's going to lead to problems accessing it."

So far, Pfizer has made good on its deliveries and the Government has said there is no reason to suggest this will not continue.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is confident the programme will stay on track.

"I have an absolute expectation and belief that we can fulfil our commitment, which is to offer every New Zealander a vaccine and the ability to be vaccinated by the end of the year. That continues to be our goal, that has been from the very beginning of the rollout."

The next shipment of vaccines is expected to arrive early next week.

Those 60 years and over will be able to book their vaccine from 28 July, and those aged 55 and over from 11 August.