Thousands of doses of the Astrazeneca vaccine, originally set aside for the elderly, will be administered to frontline healthcare workers in the coming weeks.
It comes after the State was advised to offer the over-70s the Pfizer of Moderna vaccines where possible.
The advice presents logistical challenges, because the Pfizer and Moderna jabs require super-cold storage making them harder to roll out in remote areas.
On Newstalk Breakfast this morning, the HSE Chief Clinical Officer Dr Colm Henry said it makes things “trickier” – but insisted officials are working on ways to ensure every elderly person in the country is offered one of the vaccines in the coming weeks.
He said the AstraZeneca jabs will now be rolled out to frontline healthcare workers.
“Again, they are safe, they are effective and there is evolving evidence that they work very well,” he said. “So, we will be going through those priority groups that the Government published.
“We want to complete priority healthcare workers – there is still a huge number of them right across the country.
“We have got through, certainly, 85,000 of them at this stage but we have another, perhaps that same number again to get to and we want to divert that AstraZeneca vaccine to those younger cohort of people in that priority group we call Priority Two healthcare workers and complete that out.
“Then we’ll go down to Category Four, Five and Six. Category Four of course are healthcare workers who don’t have direct patient contact.
“We will be adhering as closely as possible to the sequence laid out in that priority document.”
Dr Henry said the rollout to over-70s will still make use of the country’s network of family GPs; however, officials are now considering bringing groups of surgeries together into ‘GP Hubs’ to deliver the vaccine to their elderly patients.
“Of course, there is the trickier endpoint of people living in more remote areas,” he said.
“That is exactly what we are working out. We have made it clear we want to roll this vaccine out to everyone from Inis-Owen down to Wexford and to make sure everybody gets access to it.
“Yes, it is trickier and I want to reassure people, if we were making easy decisions based on what was easier for us, we wouldn’t have been picking these vaccines.”
He said the programme will invite the majority of elderly people living in cities and towns to central GP surgeries and hubs to get their jab – but admitted officials are still working out ways to get to people living in rural areas.
“For those people in remote areas we are trying to figure out again how we bring the relatively small volume of people in smaller GP practices together in some common area to give the vaccine – of course keeping safety as a priority to ensure they get there safely and get back,” he said.
“But we will get there.”
He said the experience of countries like Israel provides hope for the effectiveness of widespread vaccination on the virus.
“Israel now are probably the country that are at the front of vaccine provision,” he said.
“They have now evolving evidence coming back not just from the trials, they have actual real field evidence.
“They are seeing, looking at over 60-year-old who get the vaccines, they are seeing a big drop in hospitalisations and they are seeing a big drop in illness.
“In other words, the real-world evidence is showing that vaccines work. They stop people getting sick and they stop people being hospitalised.”
He said the country is looking at social restrictions for some time to come; however, the Israel experience shows that “vaccines are beginning the strangle the worst effects of the virus slowly.”
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