Australia's vaccine supply issues are over and the success of the nation's rollout now hinges on public uptake, the man tasked with leading it says.
COVID-19 Taskforce Commander Lieutenant-General John Frewen has also told Australian Community Media that vaccination rates among Indigenous Australians must be accelerated to avoid leaving them exposed once restrictions begin to ease.
The early stages of Australia's rollout were wracked by an undersupply of Pfizer, a problem compounded by the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation advising against the use of AstraZeneca in people under 60.
But with an imminent influx of mRNA vaccines, General John Frewen said Australia was on track to ramp up its rollout in September, a month earlier than initially expected.
"This takes us beyond the phase in the vaccine [rollout] where we were really mRNA supply constrained. The vaccines are coming, the distribution networks are in place and expanding. It all comes down now to public willingness to come forward," he told Australian Community Media.
"Sentiment remains strong and high, which is pleasing. But I'm not counting any chickens until we've got everybody through the door.
"We've still got a ways to go to get us to 70 per cent, and international experience tells us you've got work hard between 70 per cent and 80 per cent."
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The federal government last week confirmed it had agreed a vaccine swap with the UK for four million Pfizer doses, the first batch arriving on Sunday. Australia would return the doses by December, General Frewen predicted.
It followed a similar agreement with Singapore for 500,000 doses, and the federal government purchasing an additional one million from Poland.
General Frewen said the deals, coupled with the imminent availability of the Moderna jab, would allow the country's remaining GPs to administer mRNA vaccines.
"[That] is going to help us ramp up through September in ways that we didn't think would be possible until October," he said.
"We've got every opportunity, provided people keep stepping forward. So I really encourage everybody who hasn't made a booking to get in and make one now."
The nation's reopening plan, based on modelling by the Doherty Institute, saw Australia begin to reopen once 70 per cent of each state and territory was fully-vaccinated.
That did not include 12- to 15-year-olds, who were all eligible to make a booking from Monday.
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Nor did it include a minimum threshold for Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander Australians, raising the prospect of Australia opening up while they remained vulnerable.
Just over 40 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians aged 16 and over had received a first dose by Monday, well below the broader population of 63 per cent. Just 23 per cent were fully-vaccinated, compared to 38 per cent nationally.
General Frewen conceded vaccination among First Nations peoples had fallen behind during the initial stages of the rollout and, although it had doubled in the last month, the rate was still only keeping pace with the rest of Australia.
"So we've got to accelerate it to catch it up, because we don't want them to be behind when the rest of the nation gets to 70 and 80 per cent," he said.
"We're going to accelerate where we can over the next month by focusing on some of those communities that are most behind right now."
General Frewen would not predict when the Indigenous population would hit 70 per cent, warning vaccine hesitancy would prove the "ultimate variable". He warned a relatively COVID-free existence in most remote communities, some of which had vaccination rates under 10 per cent, had caused complacency over the vaccine.
But the virus' spread through regional NSW, including the first deaths among Indigenous Australians, had prompted a shift in the region. Work was being done with local leaders and trusted community identities to counter disinformation, he said.
"[They are] stressing not only that the vaccines are safe and important, but there is a real urgency to this," he said.
"Western NSW has given us a good reminder that COVID can rip into these communities really quickly, so we're better to get in and get ahead of the curve."
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General Frewen said ATAGI's advice on AstraZeneca had particularly impacted Indigenous Australians, who were more likely to be aged under 60. That was complicated by logistical challenges posed by Pfizer, which needed to be transported and stored at freezing temperatures.
And as a September 17 deadline for all residential aged care workers to receive at least one dose loomed, General Frewen insisted Australia was on track to vaccinate the vast majority of the cohort.
Eighty-five per cent had received a first dose and 64 per cent were fully-vaccinated, with roughly 40,000 still requiring a first dose, he revealed.
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