The Northern Territory Health Minister says all Territorians over 50 will be eligible to receive the AstraZeneca vaccine from May 3

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A woman holds up a needle next to a vial.

The Northern Territory Health Minister says all Territorians over 50 will be eligible to receive the AstraZeneca vaccine from May 3, following yesterday’s National Cabinet meeting.

At yesterday’s meeting, which primarily discussed how Australia would fast-track its COVID-19 vaccine rollout, it was announced that state and territory-run clinics will offer the AstraZeneca jab to over-50s from May 3, and at GP clinics from May 17.

These changes, Ms Fyles said, would “simplify and accelerate the vaccine rollout”.

Natasha Fyles stands in front of micrphones and looks serious.

Natasha Fyles stands in front of micrphones and looks serious.
Ms Fyles said she expected more Pfizer shipments to arrive in the NT in the second half of 2021.

Ms Fyles, speaking on ABC Radio Darwin this morning, urged Territorians over 50 to come forward for the AstraZeneca jab, which she said was safe and effective despite very rare occurrences of blood clots.

“We know it’s really important to use the AstraZeneca [vaccine], which is recommended for over-50s. It’s safe and it’s effective [and] we can roll that program out to all over-50s,” she said.

Australian health authorities have estimated the rare clots affected roughly five people in every 1 million AstraZeneca vaccine recipients.

Ms Fyles said more than 20,000 Territorians had now received their first vaccination and that nearly 5,000 had received their second dose.

Can Territorians choose between vaccines?

Ms Fyles said there were no rules for what jab Territorians in certain age brackets must receive.

The Pfizer vaccine is currently the recommended jab for Australians under 50, with research to date showing younger people are at greater risk of developing the rare blood clots potentially caused by the AstraZeneca vaccine.

However, Ms Fyles did urge Territorians over 50 to come forward for AstraZeneca jabs from May 3 when they are eligible to do so.

Ms Fyles said this was not only reduce pressure down the track on the vaccine rollout, but also because Territorians over 50 were at far greater risk of severe side effects from COVID-19 if it broke out into the community.

“The older you get, the more susceptible you are potentially to coronavirus. We don’t have community transmission, but that could change at any point,” she said.

“So you really need to look at the statistics and how COVID impacts people over 50 versus that very rare risk.

“We really encourage people to talk to their health practitioners and GPs.

“AstraZeneca will be widely available from early May. Pfizer, if [over-50s] choose to wait for Pfizer, it will be later in the year that they will become eligible for that.”

Can under-50s put their hand up for an AstraZeneca jab?

Ms Fyles said that the vaccine rollout would remain focussed on covering frontline workers, vulnerable Territorians and Territorians over 50 until more Pfizer doses were delivered to the NT later this year.

“We believe that in quarter three we ‘ll see the larger volumes of the Pfizer vaccine become available and we’ll be able to broaden that and do everyone under 50,” she said.

When the Pfizer shots do become available, the NT government will face the challenge of vaccinating an under 50 population that Chief Minister Michael Gunner yesterday conceded represented 70 per cent of the whole NT population.

“We are going to have an over-reliance on Pfizer compared to the rest of the country with this new advice [for under-50s] that has come in,” Mr Gunner said on ABC Radio Darwin yesterday.

Ms Fyles also said the government was forging ahead with plans to establish regional hubs that could safely satisfy the Pfizer vaccine’s cold-chain requirements in areas such as Katherine and Gove.

What’s happening with the remote rollout?

Speaking yesterday, Mr Gunner said he preferred to roll out the vaccine in remote communities using the same vaccine for each member of the community.

This approach, which would attempt to vaccinate whole communities in a total of only two trips, would streamline the rollout by ensuring community members are receiving their second jabs at the same time, according to Mr Gunner.

“We’ve got a number of wet season[-affected] communities, and my preference is to go into [each] community with one vaccine,” Mr Gunner said.

Ms Fyles backed those calls, saying, “it makes sense to use a single vaccine for all or most of the community”.

Focussing on wet season-affected communities, Mr Gunner conceded there could be timeline issues around the arrival of Pfizer doses later this year and the onset of the NT’s monsoonal wet season.

“Logistically the best thing for us to be able to do … is to be able to have Pfizer and go into a remote wet season-affected community prior to the wet season coming along and to be able to do both shots in that three-week period,” he said.

“The conversation I’ve had with the Australian government is, can we guarantee the amount of Pfizer that we would need to be able to do that prior to wet season kicking in this year? That’s around that quarter three/quarter four mark.

“Quarter four is probably too late — and that’s when those 20 million vials are coming in.”

Mr Gunner, however, said the delay in getting Pfizer doses into remote communities to vaccinate under-50s would buy the government more time to execute its plan of vaccinating communities in two trips and to also improve wavering vaccine confidence in remote areas.

“I would rather delay the vaccination rollout and get the supply there so we can go into a community once, which allows us to do more work in advance around the vaccines

“We are getting different feedback from different communities about ‘vaccine yes’ or vaccine hesitancy,” he said.

“Obviously, AstraZeneca with the new [national health] advice has caused some confidence issues. But by and large I think this is something that we can do with Pfizer into remote communities successfully.”

But Mr Gunner’s plan to vaccinate remote communities en masse with one vaccine has been sharply criticised by the Central Australian Aboriginal Health Congress, which said the plan to vaccinate everyone in one sitting won’t work for all communities.

“You will not get a very high coverage rate if all you plan to do is go in as a one-off, go in one go and try to do a whole community. That’s not how people are presenting to be vaccinated,” said the congress’s chief medical officer, Dr John Boffa.

“We are very capable of implementing two different vaccines. We’ve done it with influenza vaccines.”

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