What you need to talk about Covid-19 vaccines in New Zealand.

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New Zealand hopes to be able to send the Covid-19 vaccine to all over-16s before the end of the year, but there has been much debate about who receives it and when.

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Photo: RNZ / Vinay Ranchhod

Who gets the Covid-19 vaccine?

The plan is for basically everyone in New Zealand to get the vaccine, for free.

The government has secured enough vaccines to immunise the entire population of New Zealand, and then some.

That doesn’t include people under 16 years old however, because of a need for more testing, although trials for young people are showing some promise.

Some other people cannot get vaccines because they have problems with their immune system, or because of allergic reactions.

What is the vaccine and how does it work?

The vaccine available to New Zealanders is the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.

New Zealand’s medicines regulator Medsafe granted formal approval for the Pfizer vaccine on 10 February, after it met conditions required by its provisional approval granted a week earlier.

The Pfizer version is an mRNA-based vaccine, a new technology which does not contain a live virus. Getting the vaccine will not cause you to test positive for the virus.

It must be stored at -70C, and is transported in freezers.

Is it okay to also get the flu and MMR vaccines?

People are advised to leave a gap between getting the Covid-19 vaccine, and getting vaccines for other diseases.

  • Flu vaccine: Wait two weeks
  • MMR vaccine: Wait two weeks if you got Covid-19 vaccine first, four weeks if you got the MMR vaccine first

When and where can I get the vaccine?

The government plans to have administered a million vaccines by the end of June, and aims to ramp that up so that everyone over age 16 who wants to be is vaccinated by next year.

The rollout plan is focused on four groups, starting with workers in managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ):

Group number Who they are How many people When they can get the vaccine How they book a vaccination
1 Border and MIQ workers and their household contacts About 50,000 On 20 February, the first weekend after vaccines started arriving in NZ Workers book at the same time as their regular testing schedule, and nominate their household contacts to be contacted by a health worker.
2 High-risk frontline workers and people in high-risk places About 480,000 From mid March, starting with frontline health workers Vaccinations can be booked through your local DHB, with differences between regions
3 Priority groups (People at risk of getting very sick from Covid-19) About 1,700,000 From late May DHBs will invite you to get a vaccination
4 Everyone else aged over 16 About 2,000,000 From some time in July Ministry yet to advise, but could be through GPs, DHBs, Māori and other health providers, pharmacies, pop-up centres, workplaces and community clinics
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So far, vaccination has been progressing largely to plan but some regions have been doing better than others.

Early in the rollout, Northland lagged behind other DHBs in vaccinations, and efforts to widen the criteria for people there has led to huge delays for some people.

If you’re not sure which of the four groups you’re in, you can use the Ministry of Health’s online tool to help you figure it out.

Some people can apply to get vaccinated earlier than they would otherwise, including those representing New Zealand overseas (either diplomatically or in sport) and on compassionate grounds.

What are the side effects?

Pfizer says – and this is backed up by Ministry of Health data – the most common side effects are a headache, dizziness, pain at the injection site, or feeling tired or nauseous.

Muscle aches, feeling unwell, chills, fever and joint pain are also possible. Rarely, it can cause temporary one-sided facial drooping (in every 1 in 1000 to 1 in 10,000 people) or a severe allergic reaction.

Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield says the second dose is more likely to cause reaction, but these are usually temporary.

Some Covid-19 vaccines have been linked to increased likelihood of a blood clot, but not the Pfizer vaccine, he says.

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Side effects can be reported to the Centre for Adverse Reactions Monitoring on (03) 479 7247.

How effective is it and how many doses are needed?

The Pfizer vaccine needs two doses to provide 95 percent protection against symptomatic Covid-19.

This means that even if you’ve been fully inoculated, there is still a risk that you could get Covid-19, but it will mean you don’t get as sick, and are far less likely to die. It also means you’re far less likely to be symptomatic, and therefore less likely to spread the virus to other people.

The two doses must be taken at least three weeks apart, and even after you’ve been immunised it takes a little longer to take effect.

How the Pfizer vaccine works.

How the Pfizer vaccine works. Photo: Source: Pfizer/BioNTech/BBC

Even after that, it’s possible that vaccinations will be needed on a regular basis in future, partly to keep up with mutations in the coronavirus. The more cases of Covid-19, the more likely it will change, creating new variants which may not be affected by vaccines. That’s why herd immunity is important – it can slow down the rate of mutation and protect the vulnerable.

While some other vaccines have proven less effective against some of the new strains, Pfizer’s vaccine has so far proven effective against variants.

What the hell is ‘herd immunity’? I’m not a cow

Herd immunity is where there is enough immunity in a population to stop a disease spreading unchecked.

The World Health Organisation supports achieving this through widespread vaccination, because the alternative is allowing the disease to spread through a population – meaning unnecessary cases and deaths.

The amount of the population that needs to be immune to achieve herd immunity varies depending on which disease you’re talking about. For measles it’s about 95 percent, with the remaining 5 percent protected because the disease is not spread by everyone else. For polio, it’s about 80 percent.

The exact amount needed to protect against Covid-19 is not yet known, but having herd immunity in New Zealand would make it less dangerous to open the borders to others, and prevent the spread of the virus.

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What about overseas?

Much of New Zealand’s extra vaccine stock is intended for neighbouring Pacific countries, many of whom have signed on to the Covax programme set up last year to ensure fair access to vaccines among rich and poor nations.

The Pacific, after fairly successfully avoiding the virus, came under threat in 2021, with Fiji struggling with an outbreak and it got so bad in Papua New Guinea that some hospitals had to close their doors to patients or struggle on without basic supplies.

Why don’t some people want the vaccine?

Conspiracy theories and misinformation about vaccines have been rife since long before Covid-19 came along, but the coronavirus has certainly been no exception to that rule.

This has been the case overseas, as well as in Aotearoa, where pamphlets have been dropped in letterboxes, with health experts warning they are dangerous and should be thrown in the bin.

Authorities have been working at a high level as well as more locally to combat it.

Experts have given assurances that, to the best of our knowledge, the vaccine is safe and effective.

It’s a message that Māori and Pasifika – who for valid reasons may not trust the health system – particularly should hear for the protection of themselves and their whānau.

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