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One of the booking websites contracted by the federal government for the Covid vaccine rollout is erroneously allowing Australians to book in for their second dose within days of their first shot, a problem general practitioners say is compounding demand on their clinics.
The next stage of the vaccine rollout, phase 1b, officially started on Monday, allowing a cohort of 6 million higher-risk Australians to begin receiving their vaccinations at about 1,000 GP clinics or 100 commonwealth-run respiratory clinics.
GPs involved in the rollout continued to report huge demand and low supply of vaccine doses. GPs have been inundated since Wednesday, when the government launched its Covid-19 vaccination eligibility checker and booking coordination website, which linked the 6 million cohort with their closest participating GP clinic.
Richard Nguyen, a GP in Kareela in Sydney’s south, said his clinic was already booked out until July for Covid-19 vaccinations, and was only receiving about 80 doses a week.
“Basically, we’re booked out for three months to get the first dose. That’s for various reasons, including that we only get 80 doses per week,” he told the Guardian.
Nguyen said the clinic was taking bookings from HealthEngine, a privately-run health booking website contracted by the government for the vaccine rollout. HealthEngine provides an online booking service for 70,000 GPs and health practices around Australia, claims to have 1.5m monthly users, and has major investors including Telstra and Seven West Media.
He said the system was allowing patients to book in for their second dose one month after their first, rather than the three months that is recommended for most people, which studies suggest give the vaccine greater efficacy.
The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation has recommended that the interval between first and second dose be three months, but the TGA has given approval for it to occur after a minimum of four weeks in certain circumstances, including where there is imminent travel, cancer chemotherapy, or surgery.
Guardian Australia independently tested the HealthEngine website and has verified it is allowing anyone to make second dose bookings far earlier than the recommended three months, without checking if there are special or extenuating circumstances,
The Guardian’s tests showed the website was allowing second dose bookings within days of the first.
Nguyen said the second dose bookings from HealthEngine were compounding demand on his clinic.
“So that’s also contributing to why the next available booking – back on Friday – was the 1st of July. I’m assuming it’s going to be worse now,” he said.
“There’s plenty of people calling up, angry, wanting their vaccines. Receptionists are burnt out from phone calls.”
HealthEngine was contracted by the health department to provide online Covid-19 bookings. Its selection for the work stoked some controversy earlier this month after it was revealed the company had previously been ordered to pay $2.9m in penalties for sharing personal information from patients with private health insurance brokers.
The number of GP clinics involved in the rollout will grow to 4,500 in coming weeks, as the locally-manufactured AstraZeneca vaccines become available.
Deputy chief medical officer Prof Michael Kidd said there was no shortage of vaccine supply, particularly after provisional approval was granted to vaccine manufacturer CSL to produce AstraZeneca doses.
“The important thing to remember is: we don’t have any community transmission of Covid-19 in Australia at the moment,” Kidd told 3AW radio on Monday. “There is no panic for people to get the vaccine, there is going to be plenty of doses of vaccine available to people over the coming weeks and months.”
To help ease the pressure on GPs, the government made 100 respiratory clinics available to help distribute the vaccine.
But the Guardian can also reveal that at least one of the new respiratory clinics, the clinic in Campbelltown, has already had to delay the start to its work and turn people away. The department of health said the delay was caused by a potential cold chain breach with a shipment destined for the Campbelltown clinic, which was reported to the vaccine operations centre on Friday.
The government contacted AstraZeneca about the error. AstraZeneca reviewed the temperature data for the shipment, determined the vials were still safe, and dispatched them to Campbelltown today.
They were expected to arrive on Monday afternoon.
“The vials were returned to the distribution centre, and order will be re-delivered to the Campbelltown GPRC this afternoon,” a spokesman said.
Maria Boulton, a Brisbane-based GP clinic owner, was waiting until the vaccines arrive before taking bookings.
Her clinic will receive about 50 vaccines a week.
It has 15,000 patients on its books alone, not counting new patients who will approach the clinic for the first time for the vaccine.
“We can do 1,000 per week,” she told the Guardian. “Australian GPs did 6m flu vaccines in the space of six weeks last year. We have huge capacity and are ready. We just need the stock.”
The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners on Monday warned there was some risk that people would avoid calling GPs for other, non-Covid related treatment, because they were concerned about further adding to demand on the clinics.
President Dr Karen Price urged Australians against such a reaction.
“Please don’t delay or avoid a GP consultation because you fear clinics will be too busy delivering the Covid-19 vaccine,” she tweeted. “Your GP is there for you, please have any health concerns seen to. I cannot stress enough how important this is.”
HealthEngine was approached for a response.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: GPs overwhelmed as website prematurely allows bookings for second Covid vaccination | Vaccines and immunisation