New Zealand may be in lockdown but getting vaccinated against the flu, measles and other serious diseases like whooping cough is still crucial, health authorities say.
Dr Nikki Turner, director of the Immunisation Advisory Centre, says there has been some miscommunication where people were foregoing their flu jab because they were too scared to leave home during the lockdown.
The Herald has spoken to one woman whose elderly, high-risk parents live in rural Coromandel and have been unable to get the flu jab despite it being available since March 18.
Their nearest available GP has told them they can't get a flu jab appointment until May 7, as they are unregistered and registered patients are being prioritised. Another GP currently has no flu vaccine in stock. The nearest pharmacy is more than 50km away and they fear they could be stopped by police during the drive.
Turner said she was concerned at anecdotal reports of elderly people who felt they couldn't leave home to get vaccinated.
"Yes you can to get the flu vaccine, it is a priority issue."
She said there were also occasional examples of general practices that wrongly thought it was okay to delay the flu vaccine during the lockdown.
Two weeks ago the Ministry of Health announced it was bringing flu vaccinations forward to March 18 for high risk groups and frontline health workers.
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While the flu vaccine doesn't protect against Covid-19, it does reduce the burden on the healthcare system. New Zealand's hospitals already struggle each winter with a surge in flu cases, and the addition of Covid-19 could overwhelm them if uncontrolled.
Advice to health providers from the Immunisation Advisory Centre and the Ministry of Health says with the cancellation of non-urgent elective procedures and a move to online consulting, patients are confused over whether they should come in for routine vaccinations, while some providers are concerned about how to deliver them safely.
Options include ringfenced vaccination clinics, scheduling "well visits" (like vaccinations) for the morning when consulting rooms are cleaner and keeping "sick visits" for the afternoon; and vaccinating patients in their cars, the advice says.
Turner said most GPs were doing a "fabulous job" getting people vaccinated in innovative and safe ways during the lockdown. There had been no reports of crowds of people coming to get their shots.
Social distancing could be maintained until the moment of getting a jab, with handwashing before and after. During the vaccination the patient could face away or wear a mask - and they should have been screened to ensure they weren't symptomatic for Covid-19 before the appointment.
Flu vaccine distribution issues to be resolved soon
Turner said while some GPs don't have any flu vaccine in the fridge at the moment, that should be resolved within the next fortnight.
The Ministry of Health announced yesterday that 800,000 vaccines had been distributed around the country, but Turner said there had been a "bit of a maldistribution of flu vaccine" and some practices were temporarily out of stock.
"There's plenty of vaccine but the orders didn't go out smoothly at the start. Some orders were very big, some of the early ones didn't get distributed evenly. We're trying to urgently redistribute the flu vaccine but we are not running out."
Another shipment was arriving in the country later this week. The co-ordination network was working hard to figure out which fridges were sitting empty and how to fill them quickly.
Pre-lockdown, Health Minister David Clark announced that low-risk people would be vaccinated from mid-April. That was still the intention but they were not a priority, especially during the lockdown, and plans to vaccinate them could "evolve".
"At this stage we're waiting to see if we can get our high-risk groups - as many as possible done as fast as possible."
Bloomfield yesterday asked those who were not high-risk to wait, saying they should not seek a jab or expect to be called until at least mid-April.
The ministry admitted yesterday there were backlogs but asked for patience - pointing out flu season doesn't normally start until late May.
Meanwhile people can register online at the Flutracking website where they can reports their symptoms to help with early detection of flu and Covid-19.
Measles, whooping cough jabs for babies still essential
There are also fears parents may delay getting their babies vaccinated on time. While this isn't noticeably happening yet, Turner said it was a real concern.
The childhood immunisation schedule it should be at 6 weeks and at 3, 5, and 15 months, Turner said. It was her "plea to the country" not to miss those jabs which could not be delayed even in lockdown.
"We do not want to see measles coming back and we want to control whooping cough .. .the last thing in the world we need is another measles outbreak."
Parents should call ahead to their general practice to find out how the vaccinations would be carried out.
The Ministry of Health's advice to health providers says 4-year-olds' shots can be delayed if necessary, unless they have not had their first MMR jab.
Pregnant women are also a high priority to get their flu and whooping cough (pertussis) vaccinations, the advice says. But adolescent, shingles and non-urgent tetanus shots could be delayed, with catch-up plans to be made for after the lockdown.