Dieticians, speech pathologists, dentists and podiatrists could all be redirected to help the country’s vaccination effort and relieve a “fatigued and burnt out” workforce under a plan being pushed by Lt Gen John Frewen, who heads the government’s Covid Shield taskforce.
As part of an update to the national vaccination strategy released this week, Frewen warned workforce constraints were looming and he flagged the need for new staff to be brought on stream as part of a push to achieve a national vaccination target of 80% by the end of 2021.
Frewen said legal changes could be needed to allow other professions and health students to help administer the vaccine program. He noted that “cohorts of the existing workforce are fatigued and burnt out from continued utilisation during the pandemic”.
“This is likely to be exacerbated further during the ramp-up,” Frewen said.
He suggested other health workers – including dentists, podiatrists, dieticians, speech pathologists, midwives, occupational therapists and physiotherapists – could help administer the vaccine program before states turned to workers who were not health professionals.
He said the suggestion was being made to “enhance jurisdictional and commonwealth vaccination capability” but noted new laws and training programs could be needed – with each state having different regimes for the administration of vaccines.
“Jurisdictional changes to legislation may further enhance the available pool from which the workforce is drawn to leverage new or underutilised cohorts,” Frewen said.
“If other jurisdictions were to adjust legislation to allow previously unqualified individuals to vaccinate, significant workforce could be unlocked.
“The chief health officers across each state and territory will play a regulatory role to ensure that appropriate recruitment and training activities are completed within their jurisdiction.”
Frewen admitted this could create a training liability for the states but he said in New South Wales the challenge had been overcome with a university course. “Any new workforce that is used will likely be concentrated in metro areas as supervision is key to ensuring clinical guidelines are followed,” he said.
NSW has announced some health science third year students and health practitioners such as physios, dieticians, podiatrists and radiographers could administer vaccines in a supervised setting after mandated training.
“This has mobilised a workforce that will be utilised in Covid-19 clinics and will free up those who were previously administering the vaccine to undertake supervisory roles or return to their usual clinical workplace,” Frewen noted.
He suggested states could also potentially use some of the approximately 35,000 third and fourth year medical and nursing students in Australia, pointing to Victoria’s recent use of medical students to accelerate the vaccination program.
“If it were to be expanded nationwide this workforce could be used to conduct pre- and post-vaccination administration, freeing up health workers to directly administer the vaccine,” Frewen said.
Alternatively “senior health students could be used to directly administer vaccines under supervision”.
“Whilst this carries risks in terms of the availability of students, whose priority should always remain their studies, it will provide the flexibility to undertake employment after hours and on weekends to provide this service.”
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Paramedics and enrolled nurses could also be used as a “significant workforce pool”, including those who have recently retired who may choose to re-enter the workforce “for the purposes of administering vaccines”.
“Refresher courses may be required to support retired individuals getting back into the workforce,” Frewen said.
Frewen said on Wednesday he was confident that an 80% complete vaccination rate was a “mathematical” possibility by the end of the year with sufficient supplies and distribution channels available to meet the target.
The updated Operation Covid Shield document forecasts a dramatic scaling up of the vaccination program over the coming months as supplies of Moderna join Australia’s stocks of Pfizer and AstraZeneca.
Drive-through vaccination clinics are scheduled to be operating “at scale in most jurisdictions” by mid-October, while workplace vaccination and retail hubs will also be operating by the end of the year, with pilot programs to begin by October.
The plan flags that school vaccination programs could be under way by early December “pending decision about whether to open school programs”.
The document states the vaccination targets outlined for the rest of the year are based on an assumption “that workforce for new channels can be identified and stood up”.