Coronavirus: Experts react to Government's vaccine rollout plan

Medical experts have reacted to the Government's newly-announced vaccine rollout plan by giving it up a thumbs-up for prioritising border workers and high-risk groups, but also suggesting some improvements.

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins unveiled the rollout plan on Wednesday, revealing the four groups Kiwis have been categorised into which will determine roughly when they will receive a jab. Over the next three to four months, vaccines will reach about 2 million Kiwis.

First up is our 50,000 border and MIQ workers as well as their household contacts. This programme began in February and the Government expects the vast bulk of these jabs will be completed this month, with at least one dose administered. 

Approximately 480,000 frontline workers and people living in "high-risk settings" will be next. This phase will start with 57,000 healthcare workers on community frontlines getting vaccinated before other health workers who protect our most vulnerable.

Hipkins announced on Wednesday that people living in the Counties Manukau District Health Board (DHB) - located in south Auckland - aged 65 and over or who have an underlying health condition are also included in this group. 

"This recognises that there are many border operations and MIQ facilities and their workforces based in this area," he said.

The third group, who will start being vaccinated from March, includes about 1.7 million people from "priority populations" who are at "higher risk if they catch COVID-19".

Finally, the last group is the remainder of the population, who will be vaccinated from July. 

"Approximately 40,000 courses are being allocated to Māori and Pacific providers who are working directly with older people," Hipkins said.

Reacting to the roll-out plan, Professor Nick Wilson from the University of Otago's Department of Public Health said it "makes a lot of sense in how it combines enhanced border protection along with protecting the older age groups". 

He said the plan is similar to New Zealand's fully-subsidised influenza vaccination campaign in that it targets older age groups and those with underlying health conditions.

However, Prof Wilson thought the border protection element of the plan "could have been improved" by including the entire Counties Manukau adult population into the second group. 

"This is because this population is particularly exposed to border failures via the proximity to Auckland International Airport and various MIQ facilities in south Auckland," he said.

"Nevertheless, it is to be hoped that such border failures will become less frequent with the vaccination of border workers – along with other refinements with MIQ to reduce mixing of people in shared exercise and smoking areas etc."

Other suggestions he has made for New Zealand's wider COVID-19 response is phasing in mandated daily saliva-based PCR tests for all border workers, mandated use of QR codes for high-risk settings, and building higher adherence to mask-wearing on public transport.

Professor Michael Plank from Te Pūnaha Matatini and the University of Canterbury agreed that vaccinating frontline workers "will provide an extra buffer against COVID-19 getting out into the community" while the focus on vulnerable people "will protect those at highest risk of getting severely ill with COVID-19".   

"It makes sense to prioritise at-risk people who are living in south Auckland as this region has the highest risk of border-related outbreaks. This vaccination plan will help reduce the likelihood and severity of future outbreaks in south Auckland. 

"However, we should remember that cases of COVID-19 could appear anywhere, so eventually we will need to see high vaccination coverage across the whole country."

He noted that Māori and Pacific people have a higher rate of needing hospital treatment for COVID-19 after controlling for age

"It is a good start that the plan recognises this by prioritising older Māori and Pacific people. It will be important that the government continues to work with Māori and Pacific providers to ensure that there are sufficient doses available for these groups."

Psychologist Dr Sarb Johal said that the vaccination plan provides a "helpful level of predictability" in a year filled with uncertainty. 

"Telling New Zealand's exit story of the pandemic and what needs to happen to get there becomes a story of pragmatic hope, drawing a clear picture of what life might look like post-2021."

Getting a COVID-19 vaccine will be free for all New Zealanders and Hipkins on Wednesday again encouraged Kiwis to get the jab when they could. 

"Getting vaccinated is the best way to protect your whānau, their lives and their livelihoods," he said.

"As with the rest of our COVID-19 response we will make continuous improvements and adjustments to the vaccination roll-out. Our goal is to get as many people vaccinated as quickly as possible and that will require some flexibility within the sequencing.

"Further planning is underway on our ongoing response to COVID-19 including our management of the border. However the biggest factor in lifting COVID-19 restrictions will be a timely and high uptake of the vaccine."

Hipkins said workers and residents of long-term residential care environments will get the vaccine at their workplace. 

"An online tool that helps people find out when they can get the vaccine will be launched shortly. It describes the four broad groups and will take people through a series of questions to work out when it’ll be their turn," he said.

"There are two further categories we are still looking at: one for people who may need to get a vaccine on compassionate grounds; and a national significance category, which could include groups who need a vaccine in order to represent New Zealand overseas. Decisions around these categories will be made at Cabinet in coming weeks."

The Prime Minister announced on Monday that the Government had purchased enough Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines for every New Zealander. That's on top of millions of additional doses from other manufacturers.