Some of Victoria’s lowest socio-economic areas are still lagging behind on Covid-19 vaccination rates as the wealthiest local government areas surge ahead, creating a stark divide across the state.
The disparity has community leaders and epidemiologists worried the virus will sweep through some suburbs when the state opens up, if the vaccination rate does not pick up in vulnerable areas.
According to the latest data from Covid Live, a tracking site that publishes the latest vaccine data, the top five LGAs have at least 60% of their residents fully vaccinated – nearly double some LGAs’ double-dose rate.
Queenscliff leads the pack, with 83.4% of its population fully vaccinated, followed by the Surf Coast (67.1%), Buloke (64.9%), Bayside (62.9%) and Macedon Ranges (61.5%).
At the other end is the City of Melbourne (33.7%), Hume (35.1%), Greater Dandenong (36.3%), Whittlesea (37.9%) and Melton (37.9%).
Experts say it’s not surprising some council areas have surged ahead, but understanding why uptake has been much slower in others is more complex.
Early access to Pfizer boosts rate
Georgina Jackson is the practice manager at the Point Lonsdale clinic in Queenscliff, a small coastal town south of Melbourne.
She said residents’ age (which skew 65 and over), being one of the first clinics to administer Pfizer (which arrived in week two of the rollout), and easy access to the clinic helped them hit the high rate of vaccination.
“It’s a higher socio-economic area, they are well educated, so they made a well-informed decision, and English is the first language,” she told Guardian Australia.
The area, which sits right next to the second-highest LGA, Surf Coast, receives a lot of tourists so they wanted to protect themselves, she said.
Vaccines are lower where disadvantage is higher
John Glover, director of Torrens university’s public health information development unit, has been researching the link between immunisation rates and socio-economic levels.
The four key demographics that are the least likely to be vaccinated are people born in countries where English is not the main language, aged pensioners, those on JobSeeker and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, he said.
Living below the poverty line is the common denominator.
“People on health care cards aren’t being vaccinated,” Glover said. “People on the lowest incomes, people on income support payments are less likely to be vaccinated.”
Melbourne’s CBD has alarmingly low vaccination rates.
The CBD has faced unique challenges – such as vaccinating most of the city’s homeless population or those without Medicare cards who can’t access a GP.
Since 1 September, the town hall on Swanston Street has been converted into a walk-in clinic, where rough sleepers and international students can get vaccinated.
Covid vaccination lead at not-for-profit organisation Cohealth, Sally Wilcox, who runs the site, said demand had been strong.
“This is like nothing I’ve ever done before. I’ve been a nurse for many many years,” Wilcox said.
She is now helping to boost the rates in areas with lower take-up.
“On (Thursday) we are bumping in at Glenroy (a suburb in Moreland, in the city’s north), which is not our patch but we are more than happy to stick our hand out as they have low vaccination rates,” Wilcox said.
Younger LGAs playing catch up
The City of Melbourne lord mayor, Sally Capp, said the inner city was home to more young people, who had to wait for access to Pfizer.
“We’re the youngest municipality in the state – three-quarters of our residents are under 40. That means they only became eligible for Pfizer in August,” Capp said.
“The past month of first-dose vaccine increases reflects the enormous uptake from that cohort.”
It’s a similar situation in other areas with large numbers of young people, such as Darebin, Yarra and Moreland, which are among the five LGAs with the lowest rates of first doses.
Age has also been one of the major barriers in Hume, which has borne the brunt of the state’s outbreak. Since July, when the Delta strain first emerged, Hume has had one-third of the total cases.
The median age is 32, meaning many residents have only recently been able to access Pfizer.
Emmaly Leggett, 30, lives in Hume’s Roxborough Park with her husband. She caught Covid while she was waiting for an appointment to get the vaccine.
Her GP wouldn’t let her get the AstraZeneca vaccine and no clinic in her area had enough stock of Pfizer.
“I was in a coma for five days. I was in ICU,” Leggett said.
“I had not been anywhere for a week and a half. I had gone to the pet store to get food for the animals and I caught it.”
Three weeks after coming home from hospital she is still recovering, can only work four hours a day and finds it hard to talk on the phone.
She says more needs to be done to make the vaccine available in Hume, which now has pop-up clinics.
“Hume is a low socio-economic area and sometimes people see us as bad people, but we’re not,” Leggett said.
“There’s just not enough of the vaccine.”
In the last two weeks, Hume has started to turn it around – the area has had the highest week-on-week uptick.
Mayor Joseph Haweil said the jump was because the state government finally set up two walk-in clinics.
“That’s a reflection in investment in supply, particularly around Pfizer. Once we got (that) in we saw the uptick,” Haweil said.
Haweil said he is worried about the state opening up when it hits the 80% vaccination milestone for those aged 16 and over.
“It’s a war. We’re fighting the clock because you’ll have areas that will reach 80% very quickly,” Haweil said.
An epidemic of poverty
Prof Mark Stoove from the Burnet Institute said age, disadvantage and access were mixing together in lower socio-economic areas to create a perfect Covid cocktail.
“We saw this coming a year ago. The Covid response is only as good as the weakest part of the response,” Stoove said.
“The weakest part of our response we’ve found constantly to be health literacy, access to testing and vaccines, casualised workforces. These are all in lower socio-economic areas.”
Opening up at 80% means the state’s hospitals would be filled by members of its disadvantaged communities.
“So ultimately when hospitalisations increase, which they will, there will be a disproportionate number of people in them who come from a marginalised background,” Stoove said.