A doctor for the cameras - but nurses do heavy-lifting for vaccine rollout

This article was first published in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

By Karen Booth - February 2021

When Prime Minister Scott Morrison received one of the first COVID-19 vaccines in Australia on Sunday, the cameras were eager to capture the doctor giving him the shot. Less in the public eye was the nurse who administered the first vaccine, given to aged care resident Jane Malysiak, a few minutes earlier.

The government and health authorities know that nurses are the true drivers of vaccination programs; Australia’s childhood vaccination program is the envy of the world, with 95 per cent uptake, and nurses are key to that success. Yes, we have our wonderful scientists and public health officials to guide us out of this pandemic, but when it comes to what happens on the ground, ensuring Australians are prepared, informed and comfortable to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, nurses are the true experts and will administer most of the doses.

A nurse gives Jane Malysiak Australia’s first COVID-19 vaccination on Sunday. CREDIT: EDWINA PICKLES

Yet so far, nursing associations have been excluded from the decision-making process when it comes to the vaccine rollout. They were involved from the start after the swine flu outbreak in 2009, but inexplicably have been left out of this far greater logistical exercise.

The government wants 80 per cent of Australians to be vaccinated by October. Nursing associations can help determine how to deploy the nation’s health workforce to achieve this target. After all, there are 82,000 nurses working in primary health care in Australia, with half of them working in aged care, a priority sector for vaccination, and another 14,500 are in general practice, where most Australians will receive their vaccinations.

You may see a GP at the clinic when you arrive for your vaccination, but most likely you will be referred directly to a nurse to administer your shots. This makes sense. Most Australians will need to visit a clinic three times for vaccinations this year – twice for COVID-19 and once for the flu – and GPs already have their work cut out trying to catch up on key primary health care areas, like cancer screening, which fell when the pandemic hit last year. Allowing nurses to deliver vaccinations frees up doctors to do this other important work.

And nurses are trained to do this. The government recognised this reality when they released the Medicare Benefits Schedule descripter earlier this week to remove some of the barriers that would have constrained some nurses when it came to administering the COVID-19 vaccine.

Every Australian should have confidence when a nurse vaccinates them. Nurses are highly trained health practitioners with science degrees. Many have postgraduate qualifications and have completed additional speciality training in immunisation. They want to play their part, to share their knowledge and help plan the vaccine rollout. Australians trust nurses. The government should too – and give them a seat at the table.

Karen Booth is the president of the Australian Primary Health Care Nurses Association.

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