The head of one of New Zealand's largest aged care organisations says it is taking too long to get a significant education campaign informing New Zealanders about the coming Covid-19 vaccines.
Brien Cree, managing director and founder of Radius Care and its 22 facilities around the country, says his organisation has started its own education of staff and residents – and struggles to believe the government, the Ministry of Health and the DHBs are doing so little right now.
Cree says vaccination education is needed not only for the broader population but also for aged care staff. Vaccination is not compulsory – and yet aged care facilities look after New Zealand's most vulnerable group of people.
"Legally, technically, we can't force people to be vaccinated," he says, "so my view is that it morally up to us to explain to people why they should be – so that they have all the right information with which to make an informed decision; so vaccination is not a request from us but an expectation from them."
There was, he said, a lot of "misinformation and misperceptions" about vaccination in the community – and not just from hardcore anti-vaxxers.
Aged care facilities are also not permitted to test visitors coming to see residents, meaning a Covid-19 carrier could slip through the net. At each alert level, Radius Care applies safeguards like insisting on all visitors making appointments, masks and gloves for all visitors and staff, two weeks mandatory isolation for all new residents and an intensive questioning, tracking and tracing system; Cree says their cautious measures will likely be permanent.
"But there are about 40,000 aged care residents around New Zealand," he says. "Staff numbers are about the same – so that's 80,000 people. Now add on an average of two people, two close contacts, for each of those 80,000 – that's an additional 160,000.
"Straight away, we are up to 240,000 people and New Zealand is bringing in only 400,000 vaccines to begin with. All it takes is one infected person coming through the door of an aged care facility and we know somewhere between 30-50 elderly people will die.
Cree says many New Zealanders don't understand the need for vaccination because of complacency about New Zealand's good Covid-19 record so far.
"There's also a bit of fear of the unknown and I know a lot of people really take care in terms of what they put in their body. I get that – I have been a vegetarian for 40 years and I think like that too but there's a broader risk to other people if you are not vaccinated.
"Some people also don't realise there are things they need to know about the vaccines. For example, we have a woman on staff who is allergic to the egg-based element common in many vaccines – but the Pfizer vaccine, the one being used here, does not use any egg-based substances…but how many people with that allergy know that?"
Another example was long-form Covid-19, highly present in countries like the UK and US, but little-seen here. Inevitably, as our borders open more, long-form Covid will make an appearance, says Cree, and few Kiwis understand just how severe and debilitating it is: "And that's what you avoid by being vaccinated".
However, even though the vaccine is now being given to some New Zealanders, there is a huge need for education covering such issues – and Cree says he is beginning to think that New Zealand's Covid-19 performance is "not as fantastic as it appears".
"We just don't seem ready at times," he says, instancing the latest outbreak in Papatoetoe. "People were sitting in cars for four hours, waiting to be tested; some will have taken days off work because they had no one to look after the kids.
"It's crazy – where was the preparation for that? It was obvious that would happen. Why did we not have communications telling us that there would be 50 testing stations set up and people could get tested in half an hour?"
New Zealand's MIQ measures had seen about 150,000 through quarantine since Covid-19 arrived, he says. In the UK, the figure was 15 million – and managing about 12,000 a month was a lot less onerous than a million a month. Australia, by the end of April, is aiming to vaccinate five million people.
"That's our entire population," says Cree, "and we are just starting on 400,000. Sometimes, when you see data like that, you wonder whether we have got through Covid-19 just because of our geographical isolation…we've got away with it."
Another measure he could not understand was the DHBs denying organisations like Radius from using their trained nurses to administer vaccines: "We have thousands of nurses who are trained or could be trained in administering vaccines. Surely that would ease some of the pressure – but the DHBs want to do it themselves."