NSW considers making flu vaccine free as ambulance demand reaches unprecedented levels

The New South Wales government is looking to make flu vaccinations free amid “unprecedented” demand on ambulance services and ongoing hospital delays caused by influenza, Covid and furloughed staff.

The state’s health minister, Brad Hazzard, announced on Tuesday the government was seeking to implement a similar scheme to the one being offered in Queensland.

Hazzard said vaccines were crucial amid fears this year’s flu season could be worse than in 2017, when there were 1876 more deaths than expected in NSW, which the ABS largely attributed to the severe influenza season.

“This flu season could be every bit as bad, if not worse,” Hazzard warned.

Health officials are particularly concerned about soaring numbers of flu cases while the state continues to battle Covid-19, as well as consistently high levels of medical staff furloughing and “unprecedented” demand on emergency and ambulance services.

Hazzard said the NSW scheme would probably look like Queensland’s, where flu vaccines will be free for the next month.

“We’re working with our colleagues in the pharmacy area and also GPs to look at how we might be able to achieve that,” he said.

“We’ll make some announcements on that over the next few days … and hopefully, we will be able to follow a similar path.”

He reminded people over 65, pregnant women and people with some medical conditions that the flu jab was already free for them and widely available.

Over the week ending last Sunday, 1,125 people presented to NSW hospitals with flu-like illnesses. Of those, 150 were admitted to hospital and six were taken to intensive care.

Meanwhile, the number of incoming triple zero calls has reached record levels, the NSW ambulance commissioner, Dr Dominic Morgan, said.

“The amount of cases that NSW ambulance has been going to is genuinely in the unprecedented category,” he said.

“Our paramedics are very challenged, but they turn up every day to do the right thing by the community.

“But it’s also a matter of record that our patients that have some less severe conditions are actually not getting the experienced officer that they need, which prompts me to come out today and ask the community to do their bit.”

In April, 116,000 calls were attended by ambulances in NSW – only slightly down from 119,000 in January, a big increase on the pre-Covid average.

The rise in flu cases has led some pathology providers to now include influenza testing as part of regular Covid PCR tests, according Prof Dominic Dwyer, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Sydney.

“With the PCR tests that the laboratories are doing, they’re now moving from a Covid-only test to a test that gives you influenza results, RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) results, and also a Covid result,” Dwyer said.

“We’re working towards that in both the public and private sector.”

He welcomed the foreshadowed move to free flu shots.

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“If they make it free, that’s the sort of thing that helps you with any vaccine.”

About 2,500 NSW healthcare workers have been furloughed at a time in recent weeks.

The NSW Health secretary, Susan Pearce, said the issue was “significant” and was making it even harder to get on top of elective surgeries that were delayed during the Omicron Covid wave.

The NSW chief health officer, Dr Kerry Chant, warned that otherwise healthy children had died in previous flu seasons and urged parents to take it seriously, including continuing to wear masks on public transport.

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