Victoria’s hotline for booking Covid vaccines crashes after being inundated with calls

The hotline for booking a Covid-19 vaccine was unavailable for hours following the Victorian government’s decision to open up vaccinations to those aged over 40.

As the acting premier, James Merlino, announced Victoria would go into a seven-day lockdown to get on top of a growing number of cases of Covid-19, he announced people aged between 40 and 49 would be able to get the Pfizer vaccine at state-run clinics from Friday.

Merlino said it would be a matter for the federal government on whether the vaccine would be available for those in that age group at GP surgeries, but said the decision was arrived at due to frustration over the slow pace of the vaccine rollout.

“If we had the vaccine, the commonwealth’s vaccine program effectively rolled out, we may well not be here today talking about these circuit-breaker restrictions that we must impose to keep our community safe.”

Merlino said people needed to call Victoria’s vaccine booking system hotline in order to schedule an appointment.

The hotline was quickly flooded, with people unable to get through and book an appointment for hours.

The Victorian health department reported by midday on Thursday that the hotline was down and advised people to wait until it was available.

Despite the requirement to book, a number of clinics across the state began accepting walk-in vaccinations for those under 50. At the Melbourne Exhibition and Convention Centre, this resulted in a queue stretching the length of the exhibition hall out to Clarendon Street.

Dr Roderick McRae, president of the Australian Medical Association of Victoria, told Guardian Australia the expansion of the vaccine rollout was “very reasonable”.

“AMA Victoria is supportive of all of the Victorian government’s announcements today, and also really does make the same call that we heard from the acting premier, and that people should get vaccinated as quickly as they can,” he said.

But McRae said the state needed to ensure it had the appropriate capacity to deal with the influx of people getting vaccinated.

“It’s very cold outside, it’s been raining, and we can’t have a three-kilometre conga line of people waiting to get vaccinated. So it needs to be made convenient, and be a reasonable wait time.”

The federal health minister, Greg Hunt, said on Thursday that Victoria had been supplied 666,000 doses of vaccines to distribute at state-run clinics, and 853,000 had been supplied to GPs and federally-run centres.

Close to 400,000 doses of vaccine had been administered by the state as of Wednesday.

Victoria delivered over 13,000 shots on Wednesday and the state’s chief health officer, Prof Brett Sutton, said it could easily handle 30,000 vaccinations a day.

Australia is currently receiving around 350,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine a week, dropping to 300,000 in June, and then ramping up to 600,000 weekly for July, August and September.

Australia’s chief medical officer, Prof Paul Kelly, said around 70,000 doses of Pfizer would be delivered to Victoria this week and because the bulk of the available vaccine (AstraZeneca) was not recommended by the Australian technical advisory group on immunisation (Atagi) to those aged under 50, there were limited options for expanding the rollout.

“We have ample doses, but remember most of those doses are AstraZeneca, so on the basis again on the advice from Atagi, that would only be limited to people over the age of 50, and so we just have to put that in context,” he said.

McRae said it was a difficult choice for the government.

“Everything around Covid-19 is complex, there’s never one single issue, and everything is a balancing act, and ultimately a judgement call,” he said.

Over-50s who had been holding out for Pfizer should not wait, McRae said.

“There is nothing in healthcare that doesn’t carry a risk and everything is balancing that risk-benefit ratio,” he said.

The mortality rate for Covid-19 was significantly higher than the risk of complications from the AstraZeneca vaccine, and the outbreak in Victoria should serve as a wake-up call, McRae said.

“There’s the element of the Australian ‘she’ll be right’ attitude – ‘If I get Covid, I’ll probably survive’,” McRae said.

“It’s just brought into focus when you hear that a fellow Victorian is on a ventilator in intensive care.”

So far in Australia there have been 21 blood clot cases out of 2.1m doses of the vaccine administered.


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