Maddy Williams was all smiles as the needle was stuck in her arm. Few people would be so cheerful about an injection, but Ms Williams had just cause to rejoice. She was the first person to be vaccinated against coronavirus at the ACT Government’s COVID-19 Surge Centre in Garran.
“It’s awesome to know that I was at the start of helping to create a COVID-free Australia,” Ms Williams said.
The ACT received its first doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine today – “liquid gold,” said vaccination nurse Nikoletta Karagiannidis – and 2,000 ACT residents will have been vaccinated by the end of the week.
Under Phase 1a of the rollout, more than 3,500 frontline health workers will be vaccinated at the surge centre (built in 36 days on the Garran Oval as an overflow emergency department). The ACT Government will have vaccinated 50 people today; that number will increase to 250 each day over the rest of the week.
“A year ago, everyone had no hope; here today, we have some hope in the vaccine,” Ms Karagiannidis said.
Ms Williams said the vaccine did not hurt; if anything, she said, it felt better than the normal ’flu vaccine.
She would “100%” encourage other people to get vaccinated. “It would help create herd immunity, which will help to get rid of COVID in Australia.”
Both nurses are testing staff at the surge centre. Present for the occasion, Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt called the two nurses Australian heroes, protecting the nation during the pandemic.
“Today is a day of hope and protection,” he said. “There’s a lot more to go, but the next phase begins in earnest today.”
Meanwhile, the Commonwealth Government is vaccinating residents of disability and aged care facilities.
The first to be vaccinated was 86-year-old Judy Baker, a resident at Uniting Miranjani, an aged care service in Weston.
“I can’t believe it; it’s all surreal,” Ms Baker said. “I would recommend that everybody gets the vaccine to keep us all safe – that’s the main priority.”
Miranjani service manager Sharon Kickett said residents were lining up to be vaccinated; one told her they wanted their life back to normal.
ACT Minister for Health Rachel Stephen-Smith expects vaccination numbers to increase once the British AstraZeneca vaccine becomes available in March.
The TGA approved AstraZeneca last week; this will be the only available vaccine that is locally manufactured in Australia.
Pfizer is more effective (two doses give 95% immunity), but must be stored and transported at -70 ℃. AstraZeneca is cheaper to manufacture, and does not need to be deep-frozen, making it easier to distribute. Although early trials suggested the vaccine was only 70% effective at preventing symptomatic COVID-19 more than a fortnight after vaccination (62% with two standard doses, 90% with a low and a standard dose), Mr Hunt pointed to a subsequent Lancet peer review confirming the vaccine offered “100% protection against severe disease, hospitalisation, and death” from COVID-19.
Nevertheless, public health actions must continue for the next six months, until the vaccination’s effect on the population is understood, Bernadette McDonald, Canberra Health Services CEO, said.
Repatriation flights for Australians overseas will continue, vaccinated or not, Mr Hunt said.
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