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Your COVID-19 vaccine questions answered

In collaboration with nib Group CMO Dr Mellissa Naidoo

7 minute read
A woman getting a COVID-19 vaccine

We need vaccines to help bring the COVID-19 pandemic under control and get us back to a new normal, but you might have some questions about it.

With vaccination being rolled out in Australia, we sat down with nib Group Chief Medical Officer Dr Mellissa Naidoo to answer some of the most common questions about the COVID-19 vaccine.

How do we know the COVID-19 vaccines are safe?

Despite the record-breaking speed of COVID-19 vaccine development, there have been no short cuts in safety testing. All vaccines approved in Australia go through a rigorous program of testing conducted through the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA).

“It’s natural to worry whether brand new medicines are safe and effective, but Australia has strict regulatory processes to ensure this. Testing in tens of thousands of people in large trials has shown the vaccines to be safe and effective,” says Dr Naidoo.

Australians can also take assurance from the fact that so far, more than 500 million people have been safely immunised around the world, and the vaccines have been approved for use by the TGA.

“Australia has done well in managing the spread of COVID-19, but as repeated outbreaks have shown, this is a highly infectious disease with significant health risks. Getting immunised will help protect you and those around you,” says Dr Naidoo.

How do we know the COVID-19 vaccines are effective?

Australia’s TGA will only approve vaccines that are safe and effective.

The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine and the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine have both been approved for use in Australia.

Both vaccines have been trialled in several countries by tens of thousands of people and were shown to be effective at protecting people from COVID-19 after two doses. In fact, the protection against severe disease was an astounding 100%. That means these vaccines effectively turn COVID-19 into the equivalent of the common cold or mild flu.

In terms of mild and moderate symptoms, Pfizer’s vaccine gave 95% protection where the AstraZeneca vaccine provided over 60% protection.

Related: The 7 biggest Australian COVID-19 vaccine myths

An elderly woman looking at her vaccination band-aid

Who will be eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccines?

Anyone living in Australia who wishes to be immunised against COVID-19 will be eligible to receive the vaccine. This includes all visa holders, refugees and asylum seekers.

Vaccination is voluntary, but the Government is encouraging us to all do our bit and get vaccinated, because it will be the fastest route to opening up our domestic and international borders.

How will the COVID-19 vaccines be rolled out?

Australia’s COVID-19 vaccines are being rolled out in five national rollout phases. These are based on priority – those most needing protection will be offered the vaccine first. There is a widespread public health campaign to keep everyone up to date as the rollout happens.

The Pfizer vaccine has been rolled out first. It will be given to quarantine and border workers, aged care and disability care residents and workers, plus frontline healthcare workers in Phase 1a.

You can find out more information about the Australian Government COVID-19 vaccination program rollout here.

If you have further questions about the vaccines, you can ring the Government’s national coronavirus and COVID-19 vaccine helpline on 1800 020 080.

How many shots of the COVID-19 vaccine are needed?

Both the Pfizer and AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines require a second injection so as to afford best protection.

The second dose ensures that a person makes more antibodies and also that they get longer-term protection. Without the second dose, a person won’t have the immune memory required to quickly fire up an effective antibody response against a future infection of COVID-19.

Do I have to pay for the COVID-19 vaccines?

COVID-19 vaccines will be free for everyone living in Australia (including all visa holders, refugees and asylum seekers). You will not need a prescription from a GP to get vaccinated and vaccination providers cannot charge you for the appointment to receive the vaccine.

Where can I get the COVID-19 vaccines?

Vaccines are currently being administered in numerous GP surgeries as well as in state run vaccine hubs. The best way to determine access and availability is to use the Federal Government COVID-19 vaccine eligibility checker and your nearest provider can be searched at the end of the use of this tool.

When it is their turn to receive the vaccine, people who aren’t eligible for Medicare (such as temporary visa holders) will be encouraged to go to a GP-led respiratory clinic or state vaccination clinic to ensure they are not charged for the vaccine.

To receive the vaccine, you will need to provide proof of eligibility, confirm you agree to be vaccinated and have a clinical screening.

Please visit health.gov.au for more information.

What are the likely side effects of the COVID-19 vaccines?

Common reactions to vaccination include pain, redness, swelling where you received the needle and mild fever. These minor side effects usually resolve within a couple of days.

Serious side effects such as severe allergic reactions are very uncommon, and they normally occur within the first 20 minutes of vaccination. For this reason, everyone will be asked to wait at their place of vaccination for at least 15 minutes after the shot.

The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) has carefully considered the latest vaccination findings out of Europe and the UK, where there have been extremely rare instances of people developing a very specific syndrome involving blood clots with low platelet counts after receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine. As a result, ATAGI has recommended the COVID-19 Pfizer vaccine is preferred over the AstraZeneca vaccine for adults aged under 50 years.

This recommendation is based on the increasing risk of severe outcomes from COVID-19 in older adults – and hence a higher benefit from vaccination – and a potentially increased risk of blood clots following AstraZeneca vaccination among those aged under 50.

For more information, please visit the Department of Health.

Can the COVID-19 vaccine give me COVID-19?

No. COVID-19 vaccines do not contain the live virus or even the whole virus that causes COVID-19, so they can’t give you COVID-19.

What if I’m allergic to the COVID-19 vaccine?

Anyone who is allergic to any of the components of a vaccine should be offered another vaccine or they will not be vaccinated. Before you are given a vaccine, you will be screened with a safety checklist to ensure you don’t have any allergies to any of the vaccine ingredients.

“While there have been some reports of allergic reactions to the Pfizer vaccine overseas, severe allergic reactions are rare and estimated to occur in only about 11 cases per million,” says Dr Naidoo.

“If you have a history of allergies or are concerned about this risk, you should discuss this with your doctor to help ensure your health and safety during vaccination,” she recommends.

Should pregnant women get the COVID-19 vaccine?

The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RANZCOG) has reviewed all the evidence so far regarding COVID-19 vaccines and pregnancy and made their recommendations.

They say that although there is no data to indicate any safety concerns or harm to pregnancy, there isn’t enough evidence to recommend routine use of COVID-19 vaccines in pregnancy. This isn’t surprising, as typically pregnant and breastfeeding women are not part of clinical trials for new medicines (for obvious reasons).

The RANZCOG does say if a pregnant woman meets the definition of being particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, she should discuss the option of vaccination with her obstetrician, GP or midwife.

Will children be vaccinated against COVID-19?

Younger adults with an underlying medical condition, including disabilities, are currently being immunised in Phase 1b – the second group of people to be immunised in the national rollout strategy.

If the vaccines are recommended more widely for children, the under-18s will be immunised in Phase 3.

Can I get the COVID-19 vaccine and the flu vaccine?

It’s important to still get your annual flu vaccine when the flu season comes around.

According to Dr Naidoo, “Getting a flu jab has become even more important during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. While the vaccine won’t protect you against COVID-19, it will reduce your risk of getting the flu and associated complications and keep you fit and healthy.

“Getting vaccinated is the best way you can protect yourself and the people around you, including those with chronic diseases or those more vulnerable to serious illness,” she added. “However, regardless of whether or not you are vaccinated, it is important we all continue to also practise physical distancing, good hand hygiene and isolate when unwell to protect our community”.

There should be at least a 14-day gap between having a flu jab and having any dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. It doesn’t matter whether you get your flu jab before your COVID-19 jabs or vice versa. Your doctor can help ensure that the timing of flu and COVID-19 vaccination is within the recommendations.

Related: Everything you need to know about the 2021 flu vaccine

For more information about the COVID-19 vaccines and the rollout plan in Australia, please visit the Australian Government Department of Health website or Healthdirect.

Please note: The information throughout this article should not replace any advice you have been given by your medical practitioner.

About Dr Mellissa Naidoo

Dr Mellissa Naidoo is Group Chief Medical Officer (CMO) for nib. She is a specialist in Medical Leadership and Healthcare Management, with over 18 years’ experience working as a doctor in clinical, medical education and health executive roles in public and private hospitals.

Mellissa is passionate about the future of health and the role clinical innovation and digital technology will play in access to care and better health outcomes for everyone. She is actively involved in training the next generation of medical leaders and an Adjunct Associate Professor with the University of Queensland and Bond University Medical Schools.

Dr Mellissa Naidoo
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