Enthusiasm for COVID-19 vaccine slows as fifth jab nears

Australians are being urged to consider a further vaccination against the coronavirus as federal authorities prepare to recommend a fifth dose, while an exclusive survey shows many adults are reluctant to get another jab despite thousands of new infections each day.

Medical experts warned against a “mission accomplished” attitude on vaccination when official figures showed about one in five adults had received two doses without moving yet to get a booster shot.

A new poll suggests some Australians are hesitant about getting further vaccine doses.

The Resolve Political Monitor, conducted exclusively for this masthead by research company Resolve Strategic, has also found a fall in the number of adults willing to go from three to four doses.

“Australians have very little idea of the scale of the problem at the moment, including the risk to themselves,” said Burnet Institute director Brendan Crabb.

“I have absolutely no doubt that Australians don’t know that COVID is putting 50 times more people in hospital than the flu, that it’s killing 50 to 100 times more people than the flu, that 5 per cent of them, if they get infected, even if they’re vaccinated, are likely to get long COVID.

“I think Australians’ attitude to vaccination is ‘mission accomplished’.”

A new debate on booster shots is likely within days when medical experts at the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) update their guidance on who should qualify for another booster, clearing the way for many Australians to qualify for a fifth dose.

Opinions differ on the scale of the challenge, with some noting that young Australians were making rational decisions about vaccination when they were less exposed to illness and death than vulnerable groups, but medical experts agreed that a stronger message was needed to persuade older Australians and vulnerable groups to sign up for booster shots.

University of Sydney professor Julie Leask said the shift in attitude on vaccination was not about “complacency” but a lower sense of risk among many Australians and a change in their motivation about getting a further booster shot.

“I’m not so focused on coverage rates for the over-30s for the fourth dose, for example, because we need to be most concerned about the 24 per cent of those over 65 who haven’t had a fourth dose,” she said.

As well, Leask said, 34 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and 33 per cent of people on the NDIS have had four doses.

The latest Resolve survey found that most Australians expected the pandemic conditions to stay the same or improve, with 53 per cent saying case numbers would stay the same, 9 per cent expecting a decrease and 12 per cent expecting a significant decrease before the numbers come back again.

Only 12 per cent said they expected an increase in case numbers with conditions getting worse, compared with 18 per cent who said the same in December.

While 44 per cent of all respondents said in August they had received three doses and were likely to get a fourth, that fell to 16 per cent in October and 6 per cent in January. This reflected the fact that some of this group had chosen to take up the fourth jab during that period, but Resolve director Jim Reed said many thought the worst of COVID was over.

“Our polling finds a very clear decline in people’s likelihood of seeking out the next vaccination available to them over the last six months, especially among those who paused at their first or second jab,” said Reed.

“If you haven’t had your third jab yet, you’re basically not booking an appointment for the next one.”

The latest government figures show that 33.6 per cent of the eligible population has had four doses and 35.9 per cent has had three doses.

About 20 per cent have had only two doses and the remainder have had one or none.

Monash University associate professor James Trauer said there was a lack of urgency about vaccination when people should be thinking not so much about whether they had a fourth or fifth dose but how often they had a booster.

“Younger people don’t need to worry as much, but we need to work on our public health messaging to the older and more vulnerable groups,” he said.

“It’s time now to move away from thinking about how many doses we’ve had and to think about how long it was since vulnerable people were last vaccinated.

“If they haven’t been vaccinated in the last six months, for example, then we do need to think about topping up their immunity. And this will be the case for any waves that occur this winter and for future waves.”

Leask said the figures on vaccination should be treated with care because it would be wrong to think “nobody is vaccinating” even though there were significant challenges in helping people with lower incomes and lower education levels.

“There has been a plateauing in vaccine uptake overall since about September last year and if you look at it demographically, there are particular disparities by region,” she said.

“For example, there’s very low coverage for third doses in Queensland, at around 40 per cent, versus Perth with around 90 per cent coverage, and that’s a real cause for concern.

“But we’ve got to be so careful in just assuming that it’s all about motivation, or hesitancy or complacency because if we ignore the practical issues we let governments off lightly.”

The latest federal figures show there were 3168 cases per day on average and that 2150 patients were hospitalised, while there were also 291 active outbreaks in aged care homes.

The daily death rate was 41 on January 1, expressed as a rolling average per day, but this figure has fallen sharply through the month.

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