Following Scott Morrison’s announcement earlier this week that anyone under the age of 40 can ask their doctor for the AstraZeneca vaccine, thousands of Australians have been left confused and anxious about the situation.
Since Morrison’s press conference on Monday night, everyone from Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk to Australian Medical Association President Dr Omar Khorshid have pushed back at the idea, stressing that Australians should stick to the official advice given by the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI).
So what the heck are you supposed to do and who are you supposed to believe when everyone is simultaneously yelling very conflicting information? Well let’s set the record straight.
What Hasn’t Changed?
Despite the fact that it feels like the entire situation did a 180 overnight, very little has actually changed when it comes to the advice surrounding the AstraZeneca vaccine.
ATAGI (aka the advisory group from which we base Australia’s vaccine rollout plan) has not changed its advice regarding the AstraZeneca vaccine in Australia.
“For people aged under 60 years, Pfizer is preferred over Covid-19 vaccine AstraZeneca,” ATAGI’s advice states.
“This recommendation is based on older adults having a lower risk of TTS and a higher risk of severe outcomes from Covid-19.”
“AstraZeneca can be used in adults aged under 60 years where the benefits are likely to outweigh the risk and the consumer has made an informed decision based on an understanding of the risks and benefits.”
Despite this, ATAGI notes that the AZ vaccine can be given in “pressing” situations, but asserts that these instances are few and far between.
What Has Changed?
One word: indemnity.
The major announcement to come out of Monday’s Cabinet meeting wasn’t the decision to allow every Tom, Dick and Harry to get the AstraZeneca vaccine (that was a Commonwealth call), it was actually a new vaccine indemnity scheme.
Under the new scheme, if you suffer an adverse reaction to the AZ vaccine, your doctor won’t be financially liable for the compensation costs. Instead, the Commonwealth of Australia will foot the bill.
According to Morrison, the new indemnity scheme “will provide confidence to medical practitioners to administer both AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines to Australians”.
However, it’s worth noting that an overwhelming majority of GPs in Australia would already be covered under indemnity insurance by their employer, or through private indemnity insurance.
This means that provided they provide you with enough information to make an informed decision regarding your own consent to a procedure, they’re protected legally.
Something that confuses me about the gov's AZ announcement last night [and which I am looking into] – GPs are ALREADY indemnified against litigation if they provide informed consent. It's why some GPs are already giving out AZ more widely. Announcement is purely psychological.
— Melissa Davey (@MelissaLDavey) June 29, 2021
So basically, the new scheme just means the Commonwealth of Australia is taking financial responsibility for these claims, instead of the insurer.
So Does This Mean My Doctor Has To Give Me The Jab?
Even with the new indemnity clause, your GP has no legal obligation to administer the vaccine, and you as a patient can’t demand that they jab you.
Basically, the decision on whether or not to administer the vaccine now comes down to your individual GP, who will make a case-by-case judgement based on your personal circumstances, medical history and risks.
However, AMA President Dr Khorshid believes that the indemnity will make doctors feel more comfortable administering the vaccine against expert advice.
“I think some GPs will say: look, I’m not willing to do something that’s against the expert advice. But many GPs are already willing to offer it, and I think they’ll feel more comfortable to do so since the PM’s announcement,” Khorshid told The Guardian.
Realistically speaking, this is a good thing because your GP has a much better grasp on your personal health and medical history than the government does.
It’s All About Having An Open Conversation With Your GP
As a wise man (see: Bugs Bunny) once said: what’s up, Doc?
When it comes to the vaccine, or any medical decision, we should be having open and honest conversations with our doctors about not only our medical history, but also our concerns, anxieties and feelings before anything goes ahead.
“It is important to point out that as GPs we make decisions in collaboration with our patients,” The Royal Australian College of GPs president, Dr Karen Price told The Guardian.
“GPs are not there to tell patients what to do or what not to do. Rather, a GP’s job is to facilitate informed consent for the AstraZeneca vaccine, like any healthcare service. For those GPs who choose to deliver this vaccine to younger people, we have full faith they will do so in a way that facilitates informed consent. Because that is what GPs do every day on a range of treatments and care options – it is nothing new in that respect.”
So Can I Just Go To A Vaccine Hub, Roll Up My Sleeve And Get A Jab?
If you’re under 60, you’re technically going against the ATAGI advice, so you need to speak to a doctor before getting the jab.
While some vaccine hubs have doctors, they’re mostly just staffed by nurses. Although the nurses can call a doctor to talk you through the risks, this is pretty time consuming so depending on how busy and staffed they are, they might not be willing or able to do this.
The easiest way to go through the process is to book an appointment with your GP. This gives you a full 15 minutes (or however long your standard consultation is) to discuss the risks and get informative health advice before making the decision.
Ultimately, this isn’t a decision you want to rush. You should make sure you have time to actually discuss this with your doctor before letting them stick a needle in you (obviously).
In some cases, you can even get the jab during the same appointment. This was my personal experience, but it ultimately comes down to your individual clinic and whether or not your doctor has an open vial of the good stuff (the vaccine) handy at the time.
Is It Free?
The vaccine itself is free, but depending on your clinic they might still bill you for the consultation.
Consultations are covered for those aged over 50, but the AMA is urgently trying to have this changed to make sure everyone can have an informative, free conversation with their doctor before getting the vaccine.
Obviously, this is worth keeping in mind when you book your vaccine consultation appointment because you might prefer to attend a bulk-billing clinic.