A University of Waikato study is warning New Zealand's national Covid-19 vaccine rollout will be inequitable if the Government doesn't actively prioritise disadvantaged populations.
Published in the New Zealand Medical Journal today, the study analyses how far different populations live from potential vaccination centres to be used in the national rollout, set to begin in July.
It included stadiums, community-based testing centres (CBTCs), GP clinics, community pharmacies and schools. A travel time of 30 minutes or less to these sites was considered good, while a time of more than 90 minutes was considered a significant barrier.
Researchers found that several areas with significant travel times to potential vaccination sites also had high numbers of Māori, Pasifika, older and socioeconomically constrained residents.
Many areas were more than 90 minutes from stadiums and CBTCs, including pockets of Northland, the East Coast of the North Island and much of the South Island.
Schools appeared to be the most equitable location for a vaccination site, with almost the entire country within 30 minutes travel of a school. However, as noted in the study, the logistical challenges imposed on schools would likely disrupt vaccine delivery.
GP clinics seemed to offer the best coverage with very few areas more than 90 minutes away from a clinic.
University of Waikato research officer Dr Jesse Whitehead, one of the study's four authors, said the findings pointed to a real need for health services to plan ahead, ensuring the vaccine rollout didn't let vulnerable communities fall through the cracks.
"It's an opportunity for us as a health system to say, 'We've got one chance to deliver this vaccine equitably and we can take the lessons from that and apply it to other health services'," Whitehead said.
While he wasn't surprised by the findings, Whitehead said it enforced how important it was to further resource health services which unintentionally contributed to inequitable healthcare.
"If we're relying on [existing services] then those burdens of the greater barriers to accessing a vaccine are going to fall inequitably on Māori, older communities and people living in high areas of socioeconomic deprivation."
Among the settlements with significant travel time barriers were the most northern areas of the Far North, which was serviced by Māori health provider Whakawhiti Ora Pai.
In reaction to the study, Whakawhiti Ora Pai general manager Errol Murray said concerns regarding inequity were founded, but he was pleased he hadn't seen any indications of an inequitable rollout in his patch.
Starting next week, people over the age of 16 living between Kaimaumau and Te Rerenga Wairua (Cape Rēinga) could get a vaccine at certain marae and community halls - well ahead of the national rollout.
Any vaccine that wasn't used could be transported to Kaitaia Hospital to avoid waste.
"We are working very closely with the [Northland DHB] to make sure the vaccines are not going to be wasted in any way," Murray said.
Murray said he'd had very few people express vaccine hesitancy and was "happily surprised" by how many whānau had been willing to take it.
After an online hui on Wednesday with other Māori health providers and Associate Health Minister Peeni Henare, Murray said it was clear DHBs needed to engage proactively with Māori providers to ensure whānau with inequitable barriers to healthcare were not disadvantaged.
Covid-19 Vaccine and Immunisation programme equity group manager Jason Moses said issues raised in the study were just some of a range of considerations taken into account by the Ministry of Health and DHBs.
He said DHBs had separate plans on how to access different communities and plans to dissolve barriers to receiving vaccination were being actively considered.