Coronavirus: Rural health workers turn down vaccine due to travel times

By Rowan Quinn for RNZ

Some rural doctors, nurses and frontline health workers are turning down their chance of a COVID vaccine because they would have to take hours out of their busy day to get one.

They fear it is a signal for what is to come for the wider rural community.

Whangamata doctor and Rural GPs Network chair Fiona Bolden said frontline health staff in the Coromandel have had the call-up to get their first vaccination.

Some had not been able to take it up because they would have to make a return journey to Hamilton to get it, and do that again for the second dose three weeks later.

"For some of them it's going to mean hours of travel and taking them away from their practices at a time when we know there are very few people available to work in the practices," she said.

Even if some rural areas were not on the border, which the Government was prioritising for the initial stages, many included holiday hotspots that people flocked to after managed isolation or lockdowns, she said.

Because the vaccine had to be stored super cold, it was trickier from a logistical standpoint.

There needed to be systems to transport it around so all rural people would have a fair chance to be vaccinated, she said.

The Ministry of Health has said it is purchasing dozens of smaller freezers to help it roll the vaccine out to smaller centres when the time comes.

The vaccine has yet to be rolled out at all in four largely rural areas including the West Coast, Wairarapa, Manawatu (MidCentral DHB) and Whanganui.

MidCentral DHB said it will begin vaccinating at the end of this month.

Dr Bolden worried it was another sign of inequities for rural people in the vaccine rollout.

Wairarapa DHB and MidCentral DHB said any border workers living in the regions could be vaccinated at their workplaces.

Whanganui and West Coast were in the same boat, with vaccination preparations underway, and due to start late this month for Whanganui and early next month for the West Coast.

When asked about the rollout in general, COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said on Wednesday the timing was constrained by the amount of vaccine available, with doses being imported in batches from Pfizer.

That was why the populations who were more at risk were prioritised, he said.