Any Australian over the age of 50 will be able to get a COVID vaccine from May 3, but many vulnerable Australians are frustrated that they are still yet to be vaccinated despite being in the priority group.
- Margaret Ruff is angry her son who lives in a disability care home has not been vaccinated yet
- Jess Kapuscinski Evans says she doesn’t understand why all people over 50 will be given access before many people with a disability
- The Health Department says vaccinations in the disability sector will ramp up this week
Margaret Ruff’s son Raymond, 45, contracted meningitis as a child and is now intellectually disabled and cannot talk, he also has hemiplegia and epilepsy.
He lives in a disability care home in the Melbourne suburb of North Fitzroy with four other residents and their carers but Mrs Ruff said no-one there, including staff, had been vaccinated.
“I’m going to lay it right on the line: what country gives their politicians injections when people with a disability and the staff looking after them still haven’t had them?” she said.
“It’s disgusting. I have morals, I have ethics, and I can’t believe that people are disregarding Ray.”
Ms Ruff’s mother contracted COVID in an aged care facility during Melbourne’s second wave. Her mother survived and has now been vaccinated, but Ms Ruff said she will not have peace of mind until her son is vaccinated too.
“I was absolutely terrified, because on one hand, I knew mum was really sick, and while all this was happening I was terrified I might also lose my son,” she said.
Vaccines for disability sector to ramp up
In a Senate committee hearing on COVID-19 last week, officials from the Department of Health admitted just 6.5 per cent of residents in disability care had received a vaccine.
Disability care residents and workers are considered a priority vaccination group under the Commonwealth’s rollout strategy, along with the aged care sector and frontline health and border workers.
Brendan Murphy, the department’s secretary, told the committee the risk of death if another COVID outbreak was to occur was greater for residents in aged care, which is why that sector was prioritised.
“While we did originally intend to do disability and aged care together, the complexity of aged care meant we had to prioritise to get that group protected at the same time as trying to get disability started,” he said.
Professor Murphy said vaccinations in the disability sector would ramp up this week.
“The plan is to get all of phase 1, the vulnerable people, done by the middle of the year but that doesn’t mean disability in 1A isn’t a priority,” he said.
The Government has also announced vaccinations for the general public for anyone over the age of 50 will begin on May 3.
Ms Ruff said she was speaking out to ensure authorities keep their commitment to disabled people as the broader rollout gets underway.
“I’m absolutely disgusted but I’m not surprised at all. Most residents in aged care facilities don’t have an advocate,” she said.
“I would like to see everyone in a disability home, including the staff, treated with respect and vaccinated as soon as possible.”
Jane Halton, chair of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness and former secretary of the Department of Health, defended the Government’s decision to prioritise elderly people in care.
“I understand why they [authorities] took that decision and that it was sensible, based on the epidemiology,” she said.
“I think we need to remember that we can actually do the two things at once — the priority population in 1A are absolutely important but we do need to lift our game, particularly on people with disability.”
University of Melbourne epidemiologist Tony Blakely agreed that while the decision was tough, authorities were right to put elderly people first.
“The aged care sector includes older people who are much more likely to die,” he said.
“People with disabilities are more likely to die compared to someone of the same age without a disability, but they won’t be as old on average.
“It’s all about averages and trying to get your vaccine to where it will have the most affect, so age before disability, yes, is the right decision.”
The latest government figures showed 201,848 residents in aged and disability care have been vaccinated, up 24,328 from the same time last week.
Frustration over the rollout
Jess Kapuscinski Evans, a quadriplegic who requires the support of a carer, runs an arts company in Melbourne that supports artists with a disability.
Ms Evans said she is not upset that elderly people in aged care were prioritised.
However, she is frustrated that the general population will soon have access to the vaccine when the 2A phase of the rollout begins on May 3, while many disabled people are still waiting for their jabs.
“People in nursing homes were vaccinated faster than people in disabled care and I don’t feel that’s a problem per se, because the [elderly residents in aged care] face some of the same health and social justice issues that disabled people do,” Ms Evans said.
“More what I’m concerned about is the fact that perfectly healthy non-disabled people, and people who aren’t elderly or part of marginalised communities, are able to get access to the vaccine before people who are at higher risk.
“The pandemic exacerbated or made clear to people various social justice and health problems for marginalised communities, and for that reason marginalised communities should be prioritised for being vaccinated as opposed to the general population.
“It seems like the general public are getting vaccinated at a faster rate for some reason.”
Commodore Eric Young, the new operations coordinator for the government’s Vaccine Operations Centre, said jabs for at-risk populations were increasing.
“Critically last week, over 350,000 doses of vaccine were administered to vulnerable Australians, up from 330,000 the week before,” he said.
“Our focus every single day is making sure all vulnerable Australians are offered the vaccine as soon as possible.”
In a statement, a spokesperson for the Department of Health said “the vaccination of people with disability and disability workers eligible under phase 1a remains a high priority”.
“We understand and appreciate that many people in this group are eager to access the COVID-19 vaccine.
“The vaccination of people with disability in residential settings is a complex logistical operation which has commenced with a small number of sites, in consultation with disability providers, carers and the broader sector.
“This has provided the Government opportunity to refine the delivery model for disability to ensure, as we now ramp up, the model is appropriate and able to meet the needs of people with disability.”
Some aged care homes still waiting for vaccine
Florence Estepa manages Cumberland Manor, an aged care home in Melbourne’s west that was hit hard by COVID — 53 residents there contracted coronavirus last year and nine died.
Ms Estepa said residents and staff there were still waiting to be vaccinated, and is surprised they were not considered a priority given the severity of the outbreak at Cumberland Manor last year.
“We were the most hit, we were the vulnerable ones, and I would think we were first on the queue [for vaccines],” she said.
“We have got consents [for residents to be vaccinated], we are prepared when they [vaccination workers] turn up. We only got the date last week that they will be coming, on the 12th of May.”
However, Ms Estepa said only the residents will be vaccinated, and staff are expected to go to their GPs or state-run vaccination sites across Melbourne.
“It is very frustrating for them, because they thought that they were forgotten,” she said.
Karen Hollis, who has worked as a general services manager at Cumberland Manor for 20 years, said she was surprised over 50s in the general public would soon get vaccinated while frontline workers were still waiting.
“It seems funny that people that haven’t been in the frontline with COVID seem to be getting the vaccinations, and the ones that have been here working their butt off, day in day out within the COVID, have still got to wait,” she said.
“It just doesn’t make very much sense.”