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October 22, 2021

A COVID summer: Limited vaccines and unhurried leadership leave Byron exposed

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Byron’s vaccination coverage is 20 per cent below the rest of NSW and it needs to lift – quickly. Political and health leaders suggest ‘vaccine hesitancy’ as the problem, but the main issue has been vaccine supply. With thousands of Byron Shire adults not due to receive a first COVID vaccine dose until October, creative solutions – and a greater sense of urgency – are needed to get us ahead of what’s coming.

The recent Shire-wide lockdown resulted from just one Sydney traveller visiting a few Byron shops on her trip from Ballina Airport to Kingscliff. The travel was permitted, but the retail therapy was not. The traveller later tested positive for COVID, and within hours more than 100,000 of us were back in a snap seven-day lockdown.

The whiplash-inducing hard shift from ‘mostly-open’ to ‘mostly-closed’ is a regional NSW peculiarity designed to protect places like ours that have been largely COVID-free, but which also have below-average vaccination rates. Byron Shire has the second lowest first dose vaccination rate in NSW today – an extraordinary 20 per cent below the State average.

If you watched any of the daily COVID updates recently, Byron’s low vaccination rate – and what that means for the October statewide reopening plans and regional travel – is finally getting attention in Sydney. But there’s something a bit off. The questions lead with an assumption of why the vaccination rate is trailing; an assumption that respondents are too willing to reaffirm.

Premier Gladys Berejiklian.

Take this example from 22 September:

Interviewer: ‘What’s the strategy to get the vaccination rate up in Byron Bay, Mullumbimby…?’

NSW Premier: ‘Well as I said, unfortunately there are pockets of resistance… And even if you don’t care about the safety of those around you… And even if you don’t care about your community, I think people are looking forward to doing things we haven’t been able to do for a while, and I think that’s a big incentive. But as we know there will always be pockets of resistance, but we are trying to identify those communities that legitimately have lower vaccination rates, it might be access issues… and as you know we have done incredibly well as a state considering the lumpiness of the supply we have received… it’s been a challenge for us to make sure it gets to the right places… I know there are some regional communities that are slightly behind the state average and we are trying to increase those as quickly as we can.’

Wow. That’s as unsubtle as it gets. Let me translate: There are a handful of places with legitimately low vaccination rates (problems the government is working hard to fix!), and then there are places like Byron where the rate is illegitimately low owing to the selfish (in)actions of some.

While the State government concedes there’s a problem in Byron, it can’t then offer a solution without revealing that the actual cause is something it is responsible for. This ‘regional community X is good, but regional community Y is bad’ setup might help the premier duck responsibility, but it’s bad for everyone else. It’s also deeply misleading.

Vaccine hesitancy

Vaccine hesitancy is real, but we are a long way from seeing its impact. Hesitancy can partly explain a vaccination coverage ceiling, as well as a brake on vaccination pace as that ceiling gets closer. But what it doesn’t explain is a Shire-wide first-dose rate that only recently hit 60 per cent when the NSW average was at 80 per cent (and some parts of Sydney are now above 95 per cent!).

The reason we know the ‘hesitancy’ explanation is faulty is twofold. Firstly, prior to the vaccine rollout Healthy North Coast (HNC) – a not for profit with a key organising role across the region – undertook a region-wide COVID-19 vaccine sentiment survey. The results (perhaps surprising to some) showed that people up here were just as likely to get a COVID vaccine as those elsewhere.

But the second explanation is clearer still.

Appointments for vaccination were disappearing as fast as they became availablele. Photo Shutterstock

In preparation for writing this article I contacted medical practices across the Shire to check Pfizer appointments. If our low vaccination rates today is caused by ‘vaccine hesitancy’ then you would expect to find plenty of vaccine options for the days ahead. But you can’t. Karina Masterton, the practice manager at Bay Medical, described the issue:

‘As soon as we were advised that our allocation of Pfizer vaccine was to double from mid-September we created hundreds of additional appointments and got word out – those appointments were booked almost the same day. On a typical day we might get a dose or two left spare due to a no show, but we have people on standby for those doses. Looking ahead the next available Pfizer appointment is October 13.’

 This pattern was typical across the Shire – next available Pfizer jabs are mid- to late- October. The second lowest rate in the State, and yet thousand of adults will still be waiting well into October for their first vaccination.

How is it that in the Hills Shire (in north-west Sydney), where the first-dose vaccination rate has passed 95 per cent, you can get a Pfizer appointment within 48 hours?

The NSW Health response is that Pfizer availability in Bryon is improving after months of low supply. AstraZeneca (AZ) has been more widely available for longer, but outside of the Greater Sydney COVID hotspots, AZ has only been recommended to those over 60. Moderna has recently started shipping to our local chemists, but the delivery focus is on 12–15 year olds.

Compounding the vaccine supply problem, unlike Tweed, Lismore and Grafton, there is no mass vaccination clinic in Byron. And while Tweed and Lismore are in the hood, it’s still a 100km round trip.

Perhaps more alarming than the first dose rate is the fully vaccinated rate – also about 20 per cent below the State average.

Seventy per cent of NSW adults will be fully vaccinated around 7 October, a figure that rises to 80 per cent roughly two weeks later. These are key milestones flagged in the NSW ‘freedoms for the fully vaccinated’ roadmap – a document informed by Doherty Institute assessment of the vaccine coverage needed to ensure TTIQ (Test, Trace, Investigate, Quarantine) measures work and health systems don’t buckle.

And for us, where will we be?

Even with the recent vaccine-supply lift, we are still tracking to be a month or more behind than the rest of NSW. When NSW passes the key first of the Doherty milestones Byron Shire will be closer to 50 per cent fully vaccinated. This is a figure not discussed in the modeling, and indicates significant vulnerability. When we’re a month late to get to 50 per cent, 70 per cent might not seem too far away, but keep in mind the Delta variant of this virus spreads fast. And anyone with even a passing familiarity of our region’s hospital capacity should be concerned – particularly if fingers-crossed optimism, and half measures, prove misplaced.

Last week a multi-party group of North Coast MPs called on the Premier for a delay to removing the current travel restrictions until our vaccination rate catches up. While this tactic (mostly) worked while Greater Sydney was locked down, it’s harder to see it working as effectively after the long Sydney hibernation ends. Whether via ‘permitted workers’ or unpermitted travellers the virus is likely northbound, and overly relying on a ‘ring of steel’ approach will almost certainly fail.

If we don’t get across this gap expect to see more of the lockdown sledgehammer deployed to keep large-scale spread under control until the vaccination rate catches up. Massive disruption will result.

Barden Ridge, Australia – 2021-07-10 Medical stuff making covid test swab at COVID-19 drive through testing clinic. NSW, Australia. Photo Shutterstock.

Options?

But there is another option available – get vaccination coverage up much quicker.

Byron Council recently voted to make the Cavanbah Centre and Civic Memorial Hall in Mullumbimby available to NSW Health to use as a pop-up clinic. And the evidence shows this rapid deployment action works. Across Sydney, and in parts of regional NSW, mass vaccination, mobile, drive though, and pop-up vaccination clinics have helped to rapidly lift vaccination rates and improve vaccine access.

And even though it was only a week back that NSW Health created a pop-up clinic in Goonellabah, for reasons unclear none of these options are planned for Byron Shire. That’s a missed opportunity that we could all come to regret. We posed questions to NSW Health about their assumptions and caseload planning scenarios but are yet to receive their answers.

The Sydney and Melbourne experience shows us that Delta is a beast once it gains a toe-hold in a community. But with a greater sense of urgency there are steps we can take to minimise the impact. This will require political and health leaders to turn some of their attention from where the fire still burns, to where it is likely going. The clock is ticking.


♦ Rod Palmer studied at UTS and Curtin University, where he was a researcher at the Graduate School of Business. He swapped a weekly commute to Canberra, where he worked for the federal government, for the incalculably greater pleasure of regenerating rainforest at his property – Altitude 261 – in Main Arm.


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26 COMMENTS

  1. So the pilot who tested positive in QLD was fully vaccinated.

    You call those hesitant “selfish”, name calling also doesn’t work.

    You do know there is no long term data on the jabs. So in that context, are those that are “hesitant” foolish or selfish?…or justifiably wise to question any pharmaceutical product in trial phase or anything coming out of politicians mouths, often prompted by lobbyists. Depends on who you ask I guess.

    You call it a “beast”… that might help toilet paper sales. Remember we had a man and his sons with Delta in Byron shire… lots of close contact.

    There must be a way we can all work together instead of trying to divide anyone who questions?

    Let’s have a national debate… oh hang on, that isn’t allowed.

    Nor is sharing “public” health advice. That is top secret and must remain that way. Note freedom of information request being denied for National Covid Cabinet.

    Yet they want you to share your private health information with anyone who asks? Ok, got it.

    Perhaps we need a political party that only takes donations from the people. That way there is no incentive to make decisions in favour for anyone but us, the people.

  2. The federal government’s vaccine procurement and rollout strategy has been described as one of the worst administrative failures in Australia’s history- and I’m not going to disagree.

    However the trouble with the supply argument is that the LGAs of Ballina and Tweed are at 80% first vaccination rate and there is no vaccination hub in Ballina – I don’t know about Tweed. Both of these areas are easily accessed by bus from our Shire.

    Looking at the low rates for other vaccination I think it’s undeniable that there is a significant anti-vax rump in parts of the shire and Gladys will put us in the naughty corner!

    Then at 80% double dose the flood gates will open. My advice to anyone is to make sure you won’t need an ambulance or hospitalisation for any illness!

    • Vaccination hubs for Tweed and Casino are great but where’s the hub for Byron Shire? Lack of a hub, an incompetent PM who thought there wasn’t a race and didn’t order enough vaccines, then scarce vaccines had to be redirected to Sydney when needed, has contributed to the low rates of vaccination. Shame the Premier didn’t take some responsibility for her lack of swift action which allowed the latest outbreak to spread so widely, and acknowledge what a mess the vaccine roll out has been instead of hectoring and lecturing North Coast people who don’t vote for the LNP.

      Spreading misinformation about the effectiveness of the covid vaccines is dangerous and irresponsible. It’s always been stated that they do not stop all contagion, but reduce severity of illness and clearly SAVE LIVES!

      • I agree with this Louise, but the much higher vaccination rates in our neighbouring shires (so easily accessible to us) indicate that there is more than a supply issue behind Byron Shire’s low numbers.

        We will probably have to accept that, along with many other drawbacks, living in this beautiful shire includes any price that will come from a permanently low vaccination rates.

  3. Please stop pushing the agenda of the vaccination,we are already bombarded enough with it by the mainstream media ,looks like you are pressured yourself heavily by interest groups that profit from it!

    • why?… the majority just care about the welfare of others in the community, including you its as easy as picking up the phone, and making a booking.

  4. If Rod Palmer was a competent researcher he would not be a parrot for the cabal. His research is obviously restricted to watching evening news or he would be telling us the truth.

  5. Thanks Rod for calling out what many of us are feeling and/or experiencing.
    The abrogation of responsibility by State and Federal pollies and their agencies in ensuring that people who wish to be vaccinated can actually be vaccinated is astounding.
    We are often told that a politician’s first responsibility is to protect the community .
    It appears that for our current Lib/Nat State and Federal Governments that responsibility does not extend to seats they do not currently hold (and perhaps have low prospects of holding in the coming elections). Perhaps looking at it through a political lens could be unfair, but it would be naïve to ignore.

    Newcastle and the Hunter also have low-ish rates of vaccination – but there’s no signs of those communities being abandoned by pollies – that’s because they’re keen to get the traditional blue-collar votes seemingly on offer down there (before UAP and PHON scoops that pool).

    The pollies who are careless or manipulative with community trust will rue their mistakes at the ballot box – distrust is a contagion that will spread beyond parliamentary seat boundaries.

    Kevin Hogan and Geoff Provost should be very nervous – and start acting accordingly.

  6. Just learn from overseas, the vaccine does not work .period. Do. Or push it on the population. Period. Let it run its course. Use ivermectin etc to prevent and treat the symptoms. Period.

    • That is certainly not what we are learning either in Australia or overseas, Nemi. Did you expect the pandemic to have just disappeared by now?

    • Nemi, it is troubling to see such wrong and potentially dangerous misinformation being shared on this site.
      Nobel prize-winning Professor Doherty completely disagrees with your opinion.
      To quote the world-renowned Doherty Institute: “the latest data from the UK show both Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines have similar effectiveness. They both reliably prevent COVID-19 symptoms, hospitalisation and death, even after a single dose.”
      When you’ve proved wrong those who are at the forefront of research in this area, do let us know when your own Nobel Prize in epidemiology and biological science has been announced.
      Ivermectin is useless for combatting a virus so no one should be misled into thinking it’s a viable alternative to effective and free vaccines.
      BTW, one of the known possible effects of a dose of ‘long Covid’ is erectile dysfunction. Is not getting vaccinated looking quite so appealing now?

  7. From personal experience I can tell you that if you are prepared to book into NSW health department clinics at Lismore Tweed heads or Grafton that there is no shortage of vaccines !!!! REPEAT NO SHORTAGE !!

  8. Plenty of appointments in the Byron Bay chemist‘s booking app when I got my second AZ vax last week. So I disagree with the premise of the article.

    • You’re talking about AZ which has 9 deaths to Pfizer’s 0 in Australia, so it’s not recommended for all ages, and I can understand people preferring to wait for Pfizer. If you wanted Pfizer in Byron Shire it was a 2 month wait or more until very recently. They are now pressuring people to have the second Pfizer after 2 weeks, but a longer wait between shots creates better immunity, according to medical advice, so it would have been a completely different situation if Pfizer had been available 3-4 months ago in the quantity that is just becoming available now.

  9. OMG some of the above comments are truly disturbing, narcissistic and simply unrealistic of the dangers of Delta . You only need to watch what has happened across the Globe.Millions of people have not FAKED their death.

  10. Over the years here in Rainbow Country, we’ve experienced many issues that exposed opinion difference, Club Med, McDonald’s hungry to fatten their wallet & to obesify the children, we debated, disagreed. Praise The Fates, they didn’t come. Then, there was was the poisonous waters coming down from the hills, causing fish kills & creek & river toxicity. The Bondi Cigars keeping you company as you surfed our beautiful Byron beaches. Things got better
    All things debated, for & against, ( except the Bondi Cigars of course, who would wish to admit to copraphilia)we shouldn’t allow Covid19 to stop us from respecting each other’s right to difference of opinion. We mostly achieved that. Mutual respect. Whatever anyone believes re this horrid situation. Please can we respect each other, our differences. We will get through this, better together than tearing our Community apart.

  11. Sorry but I find this article very flawed. I was advised by a Byron Bay doctor that appointments were available for the jab anytime and it’s also not like Byron is hours away from other centres 30 minutes to Tweed, 20 minutes to Ballina. It’s more a case of “I don’t have to have it if I don’t want it” typical new Byron local attitude.

    • Whilst AZ vaccine has been available, it’s not recommended for everyone and 9 Australians have died from it. As you’d know, vaccine-hesitant Australians reacted very quickly to news of the risk by waiting for Pfizer, rightly or wrongly. On the other hand, Pfizer is recommended for some people, doesn’t have the same level of problems, and definitely was not available for months here, even if you were prepared to travel to Tweed you had to wait months. The Pfizer was redirected to Sydney – fair enough, but that’s a major reason for vaccine delay. Geoff Provest (Tweed MP) says this vaccine supply problem has set back this area’s vaccination rate by 4-5 weeks. Sure, availability is changing now, but this is a factor, and I think the article highlights that.

  12. This article ignores the existence of AZ. A large component of the high vaccine take up in Sydney was from people who were given no choice about having AZ, because that was all that was available for their age group, or at a hub, and because the risk of AZ was less than the risk of catching Covid. If you want a vaccination get AZ.

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