UWA experts are eager to start work on trying to determine how to ensure the WA public fully embraces any new COVID-19 vaccine that is discovered and that the uptake is high enough to protect the community.
Having spent years researching community attitudes on vaccination and the impact of government policy, political scientist Dr Katie Attwell from the School of Social Sciences says a vaccine is going to be the “game changer” that restores us to normal life but due to the anxiety and differing levels of motivation among the population we need to conduct local research to understand the right way to encourage widespread support.
“I think there are so many opportunities to get the roll-out of the COVID vaccine wrong and leave people with low trust, feeling angry and unsupported,” Dr Attwell said.
“The community engagement strategy will be very important, in terms of how the Government explains the rationale of who gets the vaccine first, and why.
“Who gets it first, that will be a question for people with specific expertise around disease transmission and disease risk, and what the evidence shows at the time the vaccine is ready. However, I would think that key groups would include seniors, younger people with comorbidities, and then essential workers and all workers. There will be economic considerations as well as health ones.
“When it comes to accepting the COVID vaccine, we will have to think about how many unvaccinated people we can tolerate in the WA community epidemiologically. How many people can we safely protect inside the vaccinated or recovered arms of the rests of us? And it may just get to the point that if there are more unvaccinated people than what we can tolerate, then the Government would have to use some kind of mechanism to either require those people to be vaccinated or stay at home.
“I can see some really interesting debates and issues coming up in the future around that and what kind of ‘passport’ you might need to be allowed to get back out into the world – some type of verification of your ability to walk out into the world as a person who is not going to be a spreader of COVID.
“It’s possible once a vaccine is in place or once we are through the worst of this outbreak, that governments might put in place a requirement for people to demonstrate that they are vaccinated or already immune to COVID in order to perhaps return to jobs outside the home or public life.”
Dr Attwell has put together a team of researchers from UWA and Telethon Kids Institute and applied for funding to determine how best to prepare the community and governments for that moment when the COVID vaccine is ready and available to go.
“What we have learnt from past experiences – including the influenza pandemic and the swine flu epidemic and other vaccine roll-outs – is that it is incredibly important to get the communications right,” she said.
“Most of my work has been around community attitudes and government policies regarding vaccines for diseases that most of us are lucky enough never to see.
“I am a scholar of mandatory vaccination regimes in Australia, Italy, France and California, all four of those jurisdictions have said – ‘Right parents, if you don’t want to vaccinate your kids, there are going to be consequences. We are going to take away money, or we are going to fine you or you can’t enrol them in school or day care’. So, what I have learnt from studying this for many years is that there are a range of government polices that can kick in before you actually say ‘We are going to make you’, including encouragement or even opt out systems.
“We still will need to do research to see what people think about the COVID vaccine compared to influenza and routine childhood vaccines.
“COVID-19 is a real lesson for everyone alive right now, young and old. Without vaccines or effective treatments, we are effectively powerless to protect our communities against COVID-19, except through the large-scale lockdowns we are now living through.
“Still, there are likely to be people who will not rush out to get the COVID vaccine because they are complacent or because they think they are healthy. We see this with the flu vaccine every year and we know one of the groups who are really bad at getting their flu vaccines are health workers.
“Through our research, we already know how difficult it can be to vaccinate some groups of people who are not necessarily opposed but who are just not getting it done. At some point, we might need to have stronger incentives for those who are open to it but need a bit more motivation. We also need to make sure we have good strategies for those who are disadvantaged and vulnerable, which can also make getting vaccinated difficult.”
Her concern is also that while WA focuses hopes on a COVID-19 vaccine breakthrough, the uptake of other important vaccines already readily available is dropping off.
“There is a concern that people are delaying routine childhood vaccinations because it doesn’t seem urgent right now to go to the doctor or clinic, or they think that social isolation protects them anyway,” Dr Attwell said.
“Perhaps for some people there are also additional access issues, with less public transport and stressful times caring for children and family members.
“We are hearing anecdotally that some immunisation services are quiet. Some of the government levers that usually motivate parents to vaccinate – childcare access and subsidies – those may not be motivating parents right now if they are keeping kids at home. The risk is that people who intend to do it later end up not getting around to it. And then we have a cohort of kids who are not fully vaccinated and miss out on getting that vital protection. That can prove fatal, as experiences in Samoa and the Philippines indicate.
“I think it is worth people reflecting at the moment just how important the vaccines we already have are. There are so many diseases out there in human history that have had this same terrible ravaging potential for humanity and there is one reason why they are not present any more and that reason is because we have a vaccine for them.”