For our free coronavirus pandemic coverage, learn more here.
Victoria’s vaccination rollout has been overwhelmed by people seeking protection against the latest COVID-19 outbreak, with the state government unable to deploy a high-tech management system it bought three months ago to support mass inoculation.
The short-notice expansion of the vaccination schedule to include anyone in their 40s pushed the state’s capacity to take new bookings beyond breaking point.
A dedicated 1-800 vaccination hotline struggled to cope with demand and Victoria’s senior public servants issued an SOS for more staff to man the phones
Despite the problems with the booking system, Victoria broke its record for the most vaccine doses administered in a single day on Thursday. Health Department data shows there were 41,389 doses administered, breaking the previous record by more than 10,000.
People were turned away from the Exhibition Building after queuing for hours for a Pfizer vaccine.Credit:Justin McManus
The problems with the system come despite tech giant Microsoft announcing in February that the Victorian government would be able to rely on its Vaccination Registration and Administration Solution platform, a system being used by several US states, to inoculate more than 6 million people and “optimise citizen experience”.
Although Microsoft Australia’s chief executive, Steven Worrall, promised in February that its technology needed only to be “fine-tuned” to adapt to the Victorian rollout, the platform was not ready to go when acting Premier James Merlino, armed with an additional supply of Pfizer vaccine from the Commonwealth, invited everyone over 40 to get a jab.
Senior government sources conceded that bedding down the platform had not been given priority owing to the shortage of vaccines and tepid demand before this week’s outbreak in Melbourne’s northern suburbs, which forced the state into its fourth lockdown.
On Friday, four new coronavirus cases were added to the northern suburbs cluster, which has swollen to 30 active cases and forced about 15,000 people into isolation.
Students returned to home schooling and businesses were closed along vacant city streets.
Mr Merlino asked for, and was granted, an extra 160 ADF personnel to help ensure the thousands of close contacts who are in quarantine do not break the rules.
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said on Friday afternoon that the personnel would help “to contain the outbreak and to protect Victorians”.
Mr Hunt said there was “real cause for hope” based on the low case numbers announced in Victoria on Friday, the strong contact tracing system and the high COVID-19 testing numbers.
However, five Melbourne bars and the people who were in them last weekend are of particular concern to contact tracers.
It remains unclear when the Vaccination Registration and Administration Solution program, secured at a cost of $5.8 million, will join the COVID-19 response. Government sources said the platform was scheduled to go live next week, while COVID-19 response commander Jeroen Weimar said Victoria would establish an online booking system “over the weeks ahead”.
Once in operation, the platform is designed to support appointments, report side effects, offer follow-up consultations and enable health providers and pharmacies to monitor the rollout of vaccine batches.
A spokesman for Microsoft Australia insisted the platform was “active and supporting the state of Victoria’s vaccination rollout”, and referred questions to the Department of Health. The department was unable to respond to questions before publication.
The absence of an online booking system for vaccination appointments created a chaotic first day of Victoria’s week-long lockdown. People who wanted to get vaccinated were unable to book an appointment, while walk-up customers were turned away from mass vaccination clinics.
Callers who rang the dedicated vaccine hotline said their calls were cut off or went unanswered, or they continually heard the engaged signal. There was still no response from some phone line at 3.30pm on Friday. By that time, appointments for the Pfizer vaccine at some centres were booked out for weeks.
In frustration, people began calling hospitals directly in an attempt to book their vaccines at hospital-run vaccine clinics. Victorians aged between 40 and 49 were turned away from the Royal Exhibition Building mass vaccination clinic in Carlton after queuing for hours for Pfizer shots. The clinic, run by St Vincent’s Hospital, turned under-50s away after it paused walk-ins owing to a high number of bookings.
Western Health, which runs mass vaccine centres at the Royal Melbourne Showgrounds and Sunshine Hospital, also paused walk-ins on Friday and was only accepting people who had made a booking through the COVID-19 hotline.
The Alfred hospital, which runs a smaller vaccine clinic that opened to the public this week, is only accepting people who have booked in for an appointment through the hotline.
The public response to the risk of a new wave of COVID-19 infections and increased eligibility for vaccinations overwhelmed the call centre dealing with vaccination queries.
An email sent across the public service by Department of Justice secretary Rebecca Falkingham asked for more staff to work in the state’s call centres “to support the contact centre in answering calls from the public and to support the COVID-19 response”.
Mr Weimar said the most important thing was giving people the chance to get vaccinated.
“We’re running both walk-ups for AstraZeneca and phone bookings and phone bookings for the Pfizer system,” Mr Weimar said.
“Over the weeks ahead, we will move towards an online booking platform in addition to that. At this point in time, we just want to keep it simple, keep it straightforward.
“A couple of days ago, we had 350 people working on vaccination bookings. As of today, we’ve got over 550 working on vaccination bookings. We have 100 people dealing with our other COVID-related questions. So we will continue to build on those numbers. We have another couple of hundred people coming online over the next few days.”
Professor Ben Cowie, the infectious disease expert in charge of Victoria’s vaccine rollout, urged people trying to get vaccinated to be patient.
“I would say if you are one of those tens of thousands of Victorians calling in at any one time … if you cannot get through, I’m sorry, but if you could possibly call back in the afternoon … ” Professor Cowie said. “We commit to vaccinating every single Victorian who wants to be vaccinated in the coming weeks.”
Professor Cowie asked people not to call hospitals directly, warning it could lead to some vaccination centres being completely overrun. He said he wanted to see the vaccine program extended to people under 40 as soon as the state had capacity.
With Michael Fowler
Those aged 40 to 49 can book an appointment to receive the vaccine by calling the coronavirus hotline on 1800 675 398, or the new vaccine booking hotline on 1800 571 121. Anyone aged over 50 seeking an AstraZeneca vaccine can walk into a state vaccination centre or book an appointment with a GP.
Get our Coronavirus Update newsletter
Stay across the news you need to know related to the pandemic. Sent Monday and Thursday. Sign up here.
Most Viewed in National
From our partners
Source: Read Full Article