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From AZ to Pfizer: Vaccine rollout continues across state, to the very tip

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The threat of COVID-19 spreading from Papua New Guinea meant people in the Torres Strait were among the first Queenslanders to be vaccinated. But it hasn’t been easy.

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Apart from the logistical challenge of health staff taking vaccines from island to island, a change in advice regarding the AstraZeneca vaccine required the rollout to be paused as Queensland Health considered the way forward.

Given the younger population in the region, Queensland Health ultimately switched to Pfizer as a precaution, a policy that then went state-wide. Now, the department is trying to hold back demand for Pfizer to ensure those who have had their first dose, and anyone else on the priority list, gets to go first.

While some people will have to wait until October or even later, people in the Torres Strait continue to be put first due to the high number of COVID-19 cases in nearby PNG and the dire situation in Indonesia.

By the time the official advice changed, almost 1,000 people in the Torres Strait had already been given their first AstraZeneca, and their fears of blood clots had to be carefully managed.

Torres and Cape HHS executive director of medical services Dr Tony Brown said another 720 vaccinations were completed last week, and most of those who had their first AstraZeneca jab ended up getting their second.

The rollout will continue on Warraber Island and St Paul’s community on Moa Island this week, along with a final round on Thursday Island. While some vaccinations have already been done in Cooktown, the program will only start seeing the general public in the Cape in mid-August.

More than 4,600 people have already had their first jab or both in the region, and there have been more than 610,000 COVID-19 vaccinations now administered across Queensland.

“We understand Cape York residents are very keen to be vaccinated,’’ he said.

“But I am sure they will understand we had to start in the Torres Strait first due to the growing risk posed by COVID–19 spreading from Papua New Guinea.

“As with the Torres Strait and Northern Peninsula Area, immunisation teams will be offering the Pfizer vaccine to everyone in Cape York communities aged 16 years and over and I urge everyone to get vaccinated when they have the opportunity to do so.’’

Queensland Health is now largely focussed on Pfizer vaccinations, for at-risk workers and populations, however doses are in short supply. People aged 60 and over have been urged to see their GP or a Commonwealth clinic for the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Some 500 GPs across Australia will start offering Pfizer to people aged between 40 and 59 this week, with another 800 to follow in July and August, including many Aboriginal community-controlled organisations.

But Health Minister Yvette D’Ath said those GPs would have “very small numbers that will grow over coming weeks”.

D’Ath said Queensland Health was administering more vaccines, and seeing increased demand, yet supplies from the Commonwealth were “stagnant”.

“We’ve asked for some of that supply to be brought forward but we’re waiting for an answer on that,” D’Ath said.

D’Ath said 228,250 people were booked in for vaccinations, most for their second dose, and another 140,000 had already registered their interest.

She urged Queenslanders to be patient while the government tried to source more Pfizer doses, not expected until later in the year.

“We will be opening up new booking slots but those booking slots will be from October,” D’Ath said.

Finance Minister Simon Birmingham on Sunday said Pfizer supplies would increase from about 300,000 doses a week now to about 600,000 doses a week, with further increases expected in September.

The Queensland Government last week requested more Pfizer from the Commonwealth but was told that, without taking doses from other states’ allocations, there was only AstraZeneca available.

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