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Can Australia actually reach its vaccination goal?

Australia is now steadily marching towards the magic number of 80 percent of the population aged 16 and above being fully vaccinated: the number that should see lockdowns and most restrictions end.

Australia is now steadily marching towards the magic number of 80 percent of the population aged 16 and above being fully vaccinated: the number that should see lockdowns and most restrictions end. 

But given how few countries have reached that target so far, even with a significant head start, how likely are we to actually get vaccination coverage that high?

Today, journalist with the Australian Associated Press Hannah Ryan on whether Australia can reach 80 percent, and what might happen even if we get there.

 

Guest: Journalist with the Australian Associated Press, Hannah Ryan. 

 
Show Transcript

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RUBY:
From Schwartz Media I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

Australia is steadily approaching its goal of 80 percent of the population - aged 16 and above fully vaccinated - the figure that should see lockdowns and most restrictions end. 

But while the numbers look promising at first glance - there are pockets of vulnerable people who are being left behind, as well as some parts of the country that are vaccinating at a significantly slower rate.

So - is the 80 percent target realistic? Few other countries have reached it, even with a significant head start. 

Today, journalist with the Australian Associated Press Hannah Ryan, on how likely 80 percent is -  and what might happen if we do manage to get there.

It's Thursday September 23.

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RUBY:
Hello, Hannah? 

HANNAH:
Hey. 

RUBY:
How's it going? 

HANNAH:
Good, how are you? 

RUBY:
I'm all right. You're practically a regular now. I love it. 

HANNAH:
Thanks for having me back. 

RUBY:
All right. We're rolling here. Hannah, It seems like the figure that's giving us hope here in Australia is 80 percent. That is 80 percent of people fully vaccinated. So what happens when we reach that? 

HANNAH:
So the national plan says that when we get to 80 percent of the eligible population, so that's people 16 and above fully vaccinated, then lockdown's should become a thing of the past. And two of the largest states in the country have adopted that 80 percent threshold as the key trigger in terms of their roadmaps out of lockdown. 

HANNAH:
So in New South Wales, they're opening much of society and the economy when they hit 70 percent. 

Archival tape -- Gladys Berejiklian:
“As soon as we get to 70 per cent double dose, we'll be able to do all those things that are set out in the road map.”

HANNAH:
But things like international travel and further easing of restrictions will be tied to the 80 percent figure. 

Archival tape -- Gladys Berejiklian:
“But I'm very confident that at 80 percent double dose, we can start thinking about returning Australians, but also about going overseas ourselves.”

HANNAH:
And in Victoria over the weekend, the state government revealed their road map out of lockdown. Which was much more cautious than New South Wales. 

Archival tape -- Daniel Andrews:
“The notion of opening this place up really quickly at 70 percent or 60 percent or today, that simply cannot be done.” 

HANNAH:
And most of the reopening in that state has now been linked to the target of 80 percent. 

Archival tape -- Daniel Andrews:
“On or about the 5th of November, we will reach 80 percent double dose. We won't say that's the end. It's not. We're going to keep pushing people to get vaccinated. But that's the really important and that is under the national plan, that's the maximum level of vaccination protection, 80 percent double dose.” 

HANNAH:
So we've got some variation between the states, but 80 percent is the figure that most state governments agree on to be the key before life can return to some kind of normality in Australia. 

RUBY:
Mmh OK, so restrictions eased, lockdowns ending the potential for travel and more freedoms granted. So how far off that are we at the moment?

HANNAH:
It depends on where you are. So New South Wales is well on the way; they've already got 80 percent of people having had at least their first dose, and the ACT has reached 80 percent of first doses as well.

In Victoria they’re a bit further behind with just over 70 percent of the state has received one dose. And then on the other end of the spectrum, you have Queensland and Western Australia. At the start of the week, they were under 60 percent single dose coverage. 

So when it comes to when we're expecting to get to that figure of 80 percent double dose in Australia, in total, if things continue on their current trajectory, we should be there by around mid-November. New South Wales is expected to hit that even faster by mid-October, but Victoria isn't expected to hit it until early November. But those numbers assume that we're going to keep vaccinating at the same rate we are now, which could happen. But it's pretty ambitious.

RUBY:
Right, So why would vaccination rates slow down? 

HANNAH:
For most of the year the problem hasn't actually been a willingness to get vaccinated. It's been about access to the vaccine. So when we saw vaccine supply ramp up and people who wanted to get vaccinated could plus they were probably motivated by the fact that there were outbreaks. We saw the rate of vaccination skyrocket and we actually ended up with one of the fastest vaccination rates in the whole world. But at the  start of the month, that started to slow down a little bit. And that's a pattern we've seen elsewhere in the world. It's not just Australia. So, for example, when the UK reached 70 percent fully vaccinated, they got there relatively quickly. But then the figures started to slow down after that. And it's also worth pointing out that very few countries have actually hit that 80 per cent figure, even if they've started well ahead of us. 

RUBY:
OK, so is it unrealistic then to expect that we will achieve the 80 percent vaccination target, especially in the time frame that's expected or potentially even at all? 

HANNAH:
I think there are positive signs that we will reach it. So if you look at New South Wales, they've already hit 80 per cent single dose. And that means it's likely that eventually they'll get to that figure double dose as well. But it might take longer for certain states and that could be a source of tension for places like Victoria. 

They're in lockdown until they get to 80 percent. So the longer it drags out, the more tension there might be. But I also think there's still two challenges that that headline figure ignores. 

The first is that we should be trying to get every community to hit 80 percent, not just a national or a state average, and that's not something that a lot of people are paying attention to yet.

And the second challenge is that even with an 80 percent rate of vaccination, we're still going to see cases go up pretty significantly when we ease restrictions. It's unclear if that's enough of a figure to stop the hospital system from being overwhelmed. 

RUBY:
We'll be back in a moment.

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RUBY:
Hannah, we're talking about attempting to reach this vaccination target of 80 percent of Australia fully vaccinated, there are a few challenges to getting there. Some of the initial challenges were around vaccine hesitancy and also supply of the vaccine. To what extent did those challenges both still apply?

HANNAH:
So we still have a bit of a challenge with vaccine hesitancy that's gone down over time. But the latest surveys do still show that about 17 percent of the population is hesitant, which is still worryingly high considering how high that 80 percent benchmark is that we've set. 

And then you've got another challenge, which is a bit of a paradox, which is as the disease disappears from the public eye, the success of the public health campaign to get vaccinated becomes an obstacle to the campaign itself. 

If you look at states like Western Australia and Queensland, they have the slowest vaccine rates and highest levels of hesitancy because the virus there isn't seen as much of a pressing issue as it is in New South Wales and Victoria. And we're actually seeing that sort of phenomenon in New South Wales as well. So, for example, Byron Bay that’s got a vaccination rate well below the state average of 55 percent for the first dose.

RUBY:
Right, so because there isn’t an immediate threat of catching Covid-19, people aren't feeling the pressure to go and get vaccinated in the same way. 

HANNAH:
Exactly. 

RUBY:
Mm, And so what are the consequences then of having these wildly different vaccination rates within a country or within certain states? When we think about reopening.

HANNAH:
The overall vaccine rate masks significant differences between suburbs and towns. And so there's a risk that when we reopen those areas that aren't as vaccinated, aren’t as protected, it makes it more likely that the virus is going to be circulating in those areas. 

New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian has warned that if there are outbreaks in certain areas, then she'll look at the vaccination rates in those areas. And if it's not high enough, there might be a localised lockdown or it might not be permitted for residents to leave that area. They might be limited to their five kilometre radius, again, for example. But it's not just about geography. There are also other concerns. So we have certain demographics, for example, that are well behind in terms of vaccine coverage. 

RUBY:
Can you tell me more about that? What do we know about which groups of people might be less vaccinated than others?

HANNAH:
It's actually really hard to tell. The government is very transparent with information around vaccination coverage by age and by area. So your suburb, your local government area and that sort of thing. But the Chief Health Officer in New South Wales, Kerry Chant, has talked about making sure we get high levels across particularly vulnerable groups. 

Archival tape -- Kerry Chant:
“So I want our homelessness level vaccination rates really high. I want our Aboriginal communities to be highly protected by vaccination. I want our drug and alcohol clients, our mental health clients. I want our justice health clients. I want our prison clients. I want all of those groups to have very high vaccination rates.”

HANNAH:
But we don't actually have access to data about how vaccination is going in those groups. I'll give you an example of people hospitalised for mental health. So I've heard from health care workers that it's actually really difficult to get vaccines for their in-patients even though they were meant to be a priority group.

And sometimes it's only AstraZeneca that's available. And if you have someone who's got a cognitive impairment or problems with psychosis, they are more impacted by some of the negative coverage that has been in the media around AstraZeneca. So vaccine hesitancy is even worse for those groups, but we don't have access to vaccine coverage rates for that group. 

Another group that Dr Chant has talked about is people in prisons. And we know that vaccination rates in prisons have jumped significantly since we've seen large outbreaks in prisons in New South Wales, but they're still below the state average. So you've got 35 percent of inmates fully vaccinated and 70 percent who've had one dose. But prisons are a really good example of how it can be difficult to know how vaccinated these groups are.

So there's been a huge outbreak at Parklea Prison where you've had more than 160 inmates tested positive for Coronavirus. But Parklea is a private prison. So those figures that I just gave you about the vaccination rates for inmates are only for people who are held in state run prisons. The state government doesn't give us figures about vaccination in private prisons. And the company that runs Parklea has only given out the number of doses that have been administered in the prison. And because there's people coming in and out of that prison all the time, it's really hard to tell how vaccinated, you know, as a percentage of the prison population is. 

RUBY:
So what does it mean then to open up an 80 percent vaccination rates when there are these groups of people, these people that you're describing, people who might have mental health issues or might be in prisons who aren't fully vaccinated, are we just accepting that they're going to be vulnerable to Covid-19? 

HANNAH:
So there's this phrase that a lot of people use the pandemic of the unvaccinated. And that's what we're probably going to see, is that when we open up, we're going to see a lot of cases and the bulk of these cases are probably going to be people who aren't vaccinated. So it raises serious questions if it's people who haven't been able to access the vaccine because of disadvantage. And when we talk about people in prisons and detention centres in that kind of setting and in hospitals as well, it's places where the virus spreads way more easily than it does out in the open. So people are going to be extra vulnerable if they're not vaccinated. So it's very risky.

It does feel like sometimes we talk about it as an end point or, you know, we finish the race when we hit 80 percent. But it's clear that it's actually not a silver bullet. So, you know, when we hit 80 percent, by no means does that mean that the pandemic is over. 

RUBY:
Hannah, thank you so much for your time. 

HANNAH:
Thank you. 

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RUBY:
Also in the news today,

Victoria experienced its largest recorded earthquake ever on Wednesday morning. A 5.8 magnitude earthquake recorded near Mansfield caused minor building damage in Melbourne and parts of Victoria. It was felt as far away as Sydney and Adelaide.

Geosciences Australia said that Victorians can expect to experience aftershocks in the coming weeks and months. 

And the Prime Minister Scott Morrison has used a trip to the United States to insist Australia and the US are on the page with their climate policies. 

Despite the US government having a much more ambitious target to reduce greenhouse emissions than Australia, Scott Morrison told reporters in New York that he had informed President Biden that his government would “continue to work on our plan as to how we can continue to reduce emissions to zero well into the future”.

The Australian government is expected to announce its long-term climate strategy next month. 

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am. And a reminder - make sure to follow us on Instagram to keep up with the latest on the show. We’re @7ampodcast.

See ya tomorrow.

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