One step to mandate Covid-19 vaccination for high-risk health and disability workers is the “right thing to do” and will “save lives,” say leading health agencies.
On Monday, Covid-19 defense minister Chris Hipkins announced employees in the high-risk, health and disability sectors who should have had their first dose by October 30 and be fully vaccinated by December 1.
Sarah Dalton, CEO of the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists (ASMS), said the union was “really pleased” that the step had been taken.
“I’m sure the vast majority of our members will welcome this, and so do we,” Dalton said.
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The new requirements cover GPs, pharmacists, health nurses, midwives, paramedics and all healthcare professionals in places where vulnerable patients are treated (including intensive care units).
It also includes certain non-regulated healthcare professionals, e.g. In nursing homes, home and local support services, kaupapa Māori health providers and non-governmental organizations providing health services. The full list will be delivered in the coming days.
Dalton said the next question healthcare professionals had was whether booster shots are on the horizon.
Healthcare professionals were among the first groups to be vaccinated, and there were still signs that efficacy and protection could decline over time, she said.
Dalton said there had been some unrest among chief physicians about having unvaccinated staff working in hospitals and health services.
“It was an extra stress in an already stressed environment. This will give everyone who works in the health care system or in the hospital security for their own personal risk and safety ”.
From a union point of view, conscientious objection from hospital doctors who were not vaccinated was “so low that one did not even register,” Dalton said.
But if this were to occur, the union was for relocation where possible.
There would be some options where relocation could not happen, but Dalton did not imagine this would be a common problem.
Clinical Director of the National Hauora Coalition, Dr. Rawiri McKree Jansen (Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Hinerangi), said all staff working in frontline roles should be vaccinated.
He said there were additional public health measures that should be mandatory, such as scanning (or registering attendance), safe distance, ventilation, masks, hygiene and staying home if one is ill.
The Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners also supported the call for mandatory vaccinations.
College president and Wellington-based doctor Dr Samantha Murton said as healthcare professionals, “we need to ensure the safety of our patients, society and colleagues”.
“Given the speed at which Delta is spreading throughout our country, this is a bold but necessary call to make,” she said.
People working in the health and education sectors were in close contact with “our most vulnerable members of society”, including those who are too young to be vaccinated or who have significant underlying medical conditions.
Murton said most GPs were already fully vaccinated, but this was an opportunity to “make one last push” to be fully vaccinated before the cut-off date.
The New Zealand Medical Association said the move was “welcome” and “important” news.
“Today’s announcement will save lives,” said NZMA President Dr. Alistair Humphrey.
All doctors should be vaccinated, and the vast majority are, he said.
Healthcare professionals are more likely to be exposed to Covid-19 during their work, potentially infecting patients who are “weakened” or immunocompromised, and more likely to suffer serious complications.
“We called a month ago that all doctors involved in patient care should be fully vaccinated – we are pleased that the government has come to the same view,” he said.
ProCare, the nation’s largest network of primary health care professionals, also warmly welcomed the announcement.
Group chief Bindi Norwell said mandate vaccination will provide safety for patients and ensure that the most vulnerable are protected.
“We also hope that it will mean that patients will feel safe visiting their doctor, rather than postponing a visit until absolutely necessary.”
Norwell said it would also provide security to the sector so everyone knows where they stand and there will be “no areas of confusion”.
New Zealand Disability Support Network CEO Peter Reynolds said the mandate is an important step in protecting people with disabilities from Covid-19.
Disabled people often have conditions that can make them less resistant to covid and are exposed to close contact with carers and other health and disability workers.
“Covid in society poses a serious threat to people with disabilities, and every step must be taken to protect them,” Reynolds said.
Reynolds said the network was keen to work with the ministry to implement the mandate, to clarify what roles are covered, and to raise the vaccination rate for the disabled – as this “had not been without problems”.
To date, Covid-19 vaccination has not been mandatory for DHB staff, except for those covered by the Covid-19 Public Health Response (Vaccinations) Order. This order will now be expanded.
In September, Stuff showed that the proportion of fully vaccinated DHB staff varied widely, from 49 per cent (west coast) to 90 per cent (Tairāwhiti).
This is generally by the National Board of Health staff, as the communications organization reporting these rates would not divide them into how many frontline health workers were vaccinated.
The West Coast and Bay of Plenty DHBs had the lowest rates for fully vaccinated staff, with only 61 percent of Bay of Plenty DHB staff having both doses.
Canterbury DHB was not far behind, with 65 per cent of staff fully vaccinated.
Health Director Dr. Ashley Bloomfield said that of course there will be some health workers who will not be able to be vaccinated for some reason, so there must be an exception – but there will also be a requirement to look at the nature of the work they do.
If, for example, a small town doctor refused to be vaccinated, which could potentially affect an isolated community’s access to health care, “we would take them on a case-by-case basis,” he said.
Bloomfield had a “really high degree of confidence” that health workers would be vaccinated, “especially those working in isolated places”.
“Of course there is an exception for health reasons, but I expect the number to be very small,” he said.