$11 million COVID booster campaign yet to have an impact

Matt Woodley

13/07/2022 4:17:33 PM

Halfway through the advertising blitz, Australia’s third dose coverage has increased by just 0.3%. GPs say the money would be better spent supporting providers.

COVID-19 syringes
Despite the recent campaign, uptake for COVID-19 booster doses has not risen by much. (Image: AAP Photos)

Three weeks ago, Federal Minister for Health and Aged Care Mark Butler announced an $11 million advertising campaign aimed at kickstarting Australia’s stagnating booster rates.
‘It is vital all eligible people keep up to date with their COVID-19 vaccinations and, if they haven’t already done so, have their annual flu jab as soon as possible,’ the announcement from the Minister’s office stated.
However, official Department of Health statistics suggest the message is still yet to cut through. In fact, not only has it failed to increase the number of boosters being administered in the community, but providers are actually averaging 340 fewer daily vaccinations since the campaign began.
According to the department’s daily vaccination updates, vaccinators administered 127,471 COVID booster vaccinations in the three weeks leading up to 22 June at an average of 6070 per day, whereas in the following 20 days 114,218 doses have been given at a daily average of 5710.
As a result, Australia’s booster coverage remains at just 70.7% – a 0.3% increase from when the campaign began.
The lack of progress has left Adelaide GP Dr Alvin Chua worried.
‘The attitude of the community is to just let it rip … I guess people are getting COVID fatigue,’ he told newsGP.
‘It’s almost like the kid that walks around playing games with their mum and dad, covering their own eyes and says, “Mummy, you can’t see me”. Well, I think that’s what the community is doing at the moment.
‘I’m worried that it’s going to affect people more than they realise or expect.’
Rather than increase the number of vaccination sessions being offered, Dr Chua is now only running four per week (down from eight at its peak), half of which still have vacancies.
It is the same for Dr Cameron Loy, who told newsGP his Lara-based practice has only seen an increase in demand since fourth dose eligibility was expanded – and even then he is not sure how long it will last.
‘We haven’t seen any change in booster numbers. In fact, we have seen a decrease and we are winding the immunisation clinics down,’ he said.
‘I wish we were able to generate more interest. The pandemic is still upon us and there are still daily deaths, high rates of infections and an impact on workplaces as staff are in isolation.’ 
At least $32 million has been spent on Federal advertising promoting COVID vaccinations, although that number is likely and underestimate as it only includes spending up until 30 June 2021, as well as the most recent campaign.
GP and Immunisation Coalition Chairman Dr Rod Pearce believes at least some of that money could have been better spent – especially for this most recent campaign.
‘We just think it’s complete waste of time,’ he told newsGP. ‘And it’s frustrating from our point of view, when you hear about all this money going to advertising.
‘All that money has been poured down that hole for a long time. What about a different channel? What about a different mechanism?’
Rather than another public-facing advertising campaign, Dr Pearce says money should be used to incentivise vaccine providers to encourage people to get boosted.
‘The provider complexity, the monitoring, and the recording is so complicated. Our view is they’ve actually got to invest in helping the providers of vaccines,’ he said.
‘To give you an example, if we’ve got a patient who’s been to a pharmacist for one of their vaccines, it doesn’t show up as completely recorded on my files.
‘I’ve actually got to individually look at each patient’s immunisation record, work out whether they’ve had their four vaccines and then contact them. That process, for no big reward, just isn’t worth the investment.’
Given the amount of work such a process entails – at a time when clinics are already struggling to meet patient demand due to workforce issues, missed preventive health checks, and the usual business of general practice – Dr Pearce suggests governments should offer to pay providers who take the time to follow up with patients in need of a third dose.
‘From our point of view, we think the states or the Commonwealth should be giving an incentive to the providers, at say $30 a shot, rather than going out and advertising a message that’s been repeated so many times that people are sick of it,’ he said.
‘It would mean you can put someone on your files to actually go through one at a time and check, because you can’t do a mass data extraction in the same way that you can [for example] to see how many patients are on statins, or have osteoporosis.
‘We think you’d get better compliance and a better return on investment.’
What about flu doses?
One element of the campaign that has enjoyed more success is flu shots, with Geelong GP Dr Bernard Shiu reporting a higher-than-usual influx of people getting immunised.
However, he believes much of this is also down to state government initiatives that have this year provided the doses free of charge to all members of the public.
‘Certainly there was a significant increase of the “usually not qualified” people to take up the flu vaccine,’ he told newsGP.
‘We delivered just under 100 of these in June. Without the [State] Government’s support, these 100 people would have never come.
‘We ran out all of our private stocks and could have given more if the Government had planned with us earlier and if we had ordered more.’
Dr Shiu says better communication will be required next year, whether the same initiative is repeated or not.
‘We worry next year everyone will be expecting the Government to give out free flu shots again and this may delay the uptake as they will be waiting for that announcement which may never come,’ he said.

‘We would like to see it happen again next year, but must have the Government’s support.’
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Dr Aletia Vivienne Johnson   14/07/2022 8:49:47 AM

I think the problem is that the Government has COVID fatigue. We don’t need advertising, we need the State and Federal Health Ministers to stand up and have daily press conferences again telling people to get vaccinated. We need incentives. Bring the mask mandate back so that at least people don’t cough their flu, rhinovirus, RSV and metapneumovirus all over each other. We need to get KIDS vaccinated. They’re the germy vectors that are spreading this to everyone. Why are only one in three 5-11 year olds covered with 2 doses in QLD? Why hasn’t this changed since January? Why haven’t school based vaccination programs been introduced yet?