The HSE’s Dr Colm Henry says he has “no regrets” that some non-frontline healthcare staff received COVID vaccines earlier than the general public.
He said three Irish hospitals nearly had to close entirely earlier this year due to COVID-related staff shortages.
The booster campaign is now underway for all over-50s, healthcare workers and anybody with underlying conditions.
It’s set to be extended to all adults over the coming weeks and months.
However, some of those likely receiving boosters now are the non-frontline healthcare staff who received vaccines early in the initial rollout when there were ‘spare’ doses left that needed to be used quickly.
Dr Henry - the HSE's Chief Clinical Officer - told The Pat Kenny Show that approach needed to happen amid a major crisis.
He said three hospitals came “within a whisker” of closing completely due to COVID outbreaks and staff absences back in January and February.
He said: “There was no point in discriminating in the eye of the storm between those who were absolute frontline staff and those who might have worked in the canteen or records department.
“Our instructions at the time - and I have no regrets about this - was to vaccinate as many healthcare workers as they could in each facility.”
He said it was not about whether people ‘deserved’ the vaccine, but more about protecting the services themselves.
He added: “Yes, there were some people who could not be labelled, strictly speaking, as frontline healthcare workers - but [it was about] the risks they brought into those settings when they had no choice but to attend at work.
“Not all healthcare workers can work from home - a substantial proportion of them have to attend their site.”
Currently, booster vaccines can only be given at least five months after a second ‘primary’ vaccine dose (or three months for those who received the one-shot Janssen vaccine).
With the booster campaign well underway, there have been some reports of people being turned away from walk-in vaccination clinics even though they’re just a few days short of the five-month mark.
Dr Henry said he hasn’t heard such reports, but he does believe there should be some flexibility when it comes to giving boosters.
He said: “Clearly there has to be precision in terms of instructions. My own feeling is if people come in a few days short, get them vaccinated.
“If people are good enough to turn up… we should be vaccinating them.
“Our aim is not to turn away, but to embrace them.
“Our centres and our vax centres like to know the exact rules… but I just want to make sure that people who take the trouble to show up for the booster vaccine around the [recommended] time are vaccinated as quickly as possible.”
Younger adults who received the Janssen vaccine are still waiting for an exact timeline of when they get their vaccine.
Dr Henry said the HSE’s "in the middle of planning" for that next stage of the rollout, and NIAC’s advice is those younger adults who received the one-dose vaccine should be vaccinated alongside others in their 30s.
He said: “They may be worried - I can’t alleviate people’s worries.
“But younger people have a much lower risk of being hospitalised, much lower risk of being admitted to ICU and much lower risk of dying from COVID-19.”
He said the risk of harm from the virus is “very much age-related” - hence the current age-based, hierarchical approach to the rollout.