Concern over COVID booster uptake as hardest-hit suburbs lag state

“We are disappointed with the overall numbers of people who have been boosted,” Dr Khorshid said. “The speed of the uptake is slower than I think many of the premiers had hoped, and that’s the case right across the country.”

He said he did not expect booster vaccination rates to surpass first- and second-dose levels.

“I don’t think we will hit the numbers that we did with the first and second doses because there’s just that fatigue; the prolonged messaging over vaccinations and mandates, which have led to a bit of negative feeling in some parts of the population, all make it very difficult.”

Infectious diseases physician Nadia Chaves has worked closely with multicultural communities in Melbourne’s outer suburbs, offering public workshops about vaccines and collaborating with community leaders to advocate for tailored vaccination and health education services.

The systemic barriers that caused these communities to become coronavirus hotspots have persisted, Dr Chaves said, arguing they remain “underserved by our mainstream health systems” and lack translated information about booster shots.

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People who had COVID-19 infections were unsure whether they still needed their booster, how long they should wait or whether they should mix and match the type of vaccine with their earlier doses, she said.

Many pop-up vaccination clinics have closed, and a return to online booking systems excludes sections of the community, she said.

“The booster message is not going out to the community,” Dr Chaves said. “There’s no strong message even in the English-speaking mainstream community about how important the booster is … it’s hard to find information that’s clear.

“We need to have nuanced conversations with these communities and understand that migrants, many of whom are refugees and fled dictatorships in their home countries, will find it hard to trust government agencies.”

A Victorian Health Department spokesman said more than 826,000 Victorians aged 16 and over have had a third dose in the past month, with coverage in this section of the population rising from 44.8 per cent (2.42 million doses) on February 7 to 60.1 per cent (3.25 million doses) on March 6.

He said the department works closely with councils to implement tailored engagement programs to drive demand for third doses among culturally and linguistically diverse Victorians, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, National Disability Insurance Scheme participants and industries where third doses are required. This includes pop-up vaccination clinics and culturally appropriate vaccination services with in-language support.

“We’re working hard to close the gap between second and third doses – calling and texting thousands of Victorians each week, rolling out targeted engagement strategies to drive vaccine uptake, and working with local communities,” he said.

“The data is clear that getting your third dose significantly reduces your chances of going to hospital, ICU or dying from COVID-19.”

The head of Monash University’s epidemiological unit, James Trauer, said more investment was needed to improve public health messaging about booster shots, and governments could no longer rely on mandates to bolster vaccination rates.

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“We have to move away from mandates at some point in the fairly near future, and we need to shift over to a health promotion type of approach, where we explain to people why they need three doses and when they might need them and who needs them the most,” Professor Trauer said. “We haven’t gone very far down that track.”

Deakin University epidemiology chair Catherine Bennett said the high rate of infections had undoubtedly led to delays in people getting boosters.

“We’ve got to be careful,” she said, cautioning against complacency about the virus in the face of major global events such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “When there’s a war on, what does COVID matter any more? But it still matters. The last thing you want when the world has so much else going on is to have preventable serious illness in the population.”

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