Mirror Article December 8

by Dr Priscilla Robinson

It’s OK to ask

We are lucky here in postcode 3960 for many reasons. The scenery is astounding, the outdoor facilities are fantastic, the local produce is of exceptional quality, we have a good local hospital and health centre, and we are near enough to major towns and high-level facilities if we need them. Which is partly why 3960 is a popular destination for people seeking a weekend break or longer holiday. But might our summer visitors pose a COVID risk to us? Here are some numbers to help us understand it all. 

Over 95% of our resident population is fully COVID-19 vaccinated, which is just about everyone over 12, a truly remarkable achievement. And no cases in our postcode, except for a single returned traveller who kept it to themself, way back at the start of the pandemic. However, we all know that our local population is on average a few years older than in the general Australian community, and for that reason a rather more vulnerable one. 

Our Australian and Victorian governments keep telling us that we have a high vaccination rate, and although we were rather slow getting going we have now caught up with most of the world. BUT, and it is an important but, this is only amongst the group of people who are eligible to be vaccinated, which at the moment does not include children under 12. Herd immunity, which has been mentioned often this year, is about our whole population, and not just conveniently selected parts of it. Out of 25.7 million Australians, about 4.1 million, which is about 16% – are twelve or under. So really, if we include these children in the national vaccination rate calculation, we end up with a number more like 80% fully vaccinated.  

We also do not know what the whole population vaccination rate needs to be to prevent COVID-19, but the more people who are vaccinated the less COVID can pass around. When vaccinated people do pick it up usually they clear it quickly and, even though COVID vaccines are not 100% successful at preventing COVID-19, international research clearly shows that overall vaccinated people have much less severe disease. And children are currently an important infection pool, even though most do not show symptoms (rather like the way they pass around common childhood infections). 

This is a problem if we consider our visitors, a lot of whom will be much-loved young children (who cannot yet be vaccinated) and their parents (who should be). 

There are a few things we can do to keep ourselves safe. 

Firstly, remember all of those things we have been doing for the last couple of years. Keep wearing your mask indoors in public areas, even if it is not requested. Wear your mask OVER your nose, or you might as well not bother – these germs live in your nose, so please keep it covered! Keep your hands clean, so keep up hand washing and sanitising. Keep up the 1.5 metres distancing in public. Use the QR-code check-ins wherever you go. Show your certificate when asked, and if you don’t have one, please don’t argue about whether you need it or not – you do, everywhere in 3960, and it doesn’t matter if you live here or are a visitor! Outdoor activities seem to be good at preventing spread, and as it looks like our Christmas weather might be dry and warm (although this is not a promise, after all we do live in South Gippsland!) so you will be able to spend as much family time as you can outside.

Secondly, you can practice from now on asking visitors to your home if they are vaccinated. Visitors include anybody coming to your home for maintenance and repairs, cleaning, gardening, – seeing friends for coffee anything at all. Recently we have been asked to confirm our vaccination status before people came to our home, which we were very happy to do. 

But what about your Christmas visitors – which might be harder. Well, by practising from now on it becomes easier. Try asking people you see regularly, whose vaccination status you already know about, because that will be easy. If you are unsure how to go about it, ask about how they found their ‘flu vaccine this year, or ask when they are having their booster shot. Some people are asking unvaccinated relatives not to come which might be hard, but not as hard as having a vulnerable person such as a pregnant woman or elderly relative getting COVID because you could not bear to ask. Making sure our visitors are not going to be a risk to us needs to become part of what we expect to do – like asking car passengers to wear a seatbelt, SLIP SLOP SLAP outdoors in summer, and having our screening tests done – all just part of the job of general health maintenance. 

But to return to the subject of visitors to our own community, people who have not been vaccinated should not be visiting community Christmas functions. So let’s try it out. OK, here is a question for our local parliamentary representatives Russell Broad bent and Danny O’Brien: have you been vaccinated? 

It’s definitely OK to ask! 

Age data from: https://stat.data.abs.gov.au/Index.aspx?DataSetCode=ERP_QUARTERLY 
Vaccination data from https://covidlive.com.au/report/vaccinations-age-band-high.  

A couple of other things to think about:

If you are thinking of going away for a break, interstate or overseas, you do need to be fully vaccinated. Many popular overseas holiday destinations have not been as lucky as Australia on getting access to COVID vaccines, and governments in wealthy countries – including ours – have been quite selfish in the way the vaccines have been purchased and distributed, with commitments to provide for resource-poor countries not being fulfilled. One way you can help is this: funding for the vaccines we have had has come from our taxes so was provided at no cost to us. Depending on which vaccine, they cost between $20 and $40 per dose. The UNICEF children’s agency (https://www.unicef.org) is partnering with the World Health Organization COVAX programme (which you can read about here https://www.who.int/initiatives/act-accelerator/covax) to provide vaccines to low income countries, and a festive season donation to UNICEF to help with that effort – ‘paying it forward ‘  – would help get vaccines into the arms of people who otherwise will never have access to them. Getting vaccines to everyone who needs them will also help to stop the emergence of new strains – so it’s a win-win-win all around. 

And lastly, on the topic of new strains, I really need to mention that new variant Omicron. So far (Monday 6th) there have been NO deaths attributed to it anywhere in the world, not even in South Africa, and it does seem to be causing less severe COVID disease. Vaccinated people often report no symptoms at all. The worldwide caution is really just that – being alert but not alarmed to use a common phrase – and it is not helpful at all that much of the press is using scary language to describe its progress. Although I have heard various unqualified politicians, non-infectious disease medical personnel etc make frightening comments, I do not know of any communicable disease specialists or virologists who are alarmed – and they are the group with specific and relevant training and expertise. It is more useful to thank the excellent South African scientists for alerting us to it early, and to make sure we do everything we can to keep ourselves and our own community protected.