The number of healthcare workers infected with COVID-19 in the Sydney outbreak has doubled in the past two weeks and has hit almost 120 cases, with one peak medical group renewing calls to mandate vaccines for all hospital workers nationally.
NSW Heath data reveals that from the start of the outbreak on June 16 until July 24, about 10 per cent of healthcare workers who caught the highly transmissible Delta strain of the virus were fully vaccinated and about one-quarter had received at least one shot.
The peak body for the not-for-profit hospital network, Catholic Health Australia, has called on national cabinet to require vaccination for all hospital staff, with some hospitals redeploying unvaccinated workers to clinical areas with a lower risk. It is not mandatory for healthcare workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
Director of health policy at Catholic Health Australia, James Kemp, said while many hospital workers were already vaccinated, a “mandatory policy would send a potent message to the minority who need the push. If canned fruit companies can make vaccinations mandatory they should surely be mandatory for hospital staff.”
Catholic Health, which employs more than 45,000 workers, said a blanket rule for COVID-19 vaccination should be in place regardless of whether a hospital worker is employed in an emergency department, ICU, or a clinical or support position.
Data available from June 16 to July 24 in NSW shows of the 65 healthcare workers who were diagnosed with COVID-19, seven had been fully vaccinated and 16 were partially vaccinated. Of the 117 cases in healthcare workers up until August 6, the majority (76 per cent) were infected in the community, while 26 per cent were potentially infected in a healthcare setting.
Five people have died after catching COVID-19 in Liverpool Hospital’s geriatric and neurology wards after a partially vaccinated student nurse tested positive last month. Twenty-nine patients have now tested positive after catching COVID-19 in the hospital, in addition to four staff members.
Australian Medical Association (AMA) president Dr Omar Khorshid said while the AMA does not have a mandatory vaccination policy for healthcare workers it is “extremely likely that mandatory vaccination will be a part of workplaces as we move into a living-with-COVID life, including many healthcare roles”.
Despite healthcare and hospital workers prioritised in vaccine rollouts, it is unknown how many of these workers have been fully and partially vaccinated.
Transparent up-to-date data that allows hospitals to track healthcare worker vaccination would boost equity in coverage across locations and within organisations, said University of NSW infectious disease social scientist Associate Professor Holly Seale.
If we want staff vaccination to go beyond 70 to 80 per cent, we may need to consider mandates. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think a healthcare setting mandates should be considered when there is ongoing risk to spread the virus,” she said.
“There may be staff who have decided to wait and there may be staff who have found getting a jab complicated by scarce supply, particularly for those eligible for Pfizer.”
In NSW it is mandatory for health staff in high-risk areas to have an annual flu vaccine and front-line staff must show evidence they are inoculated against measles, diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough and chickenpox.
But Health Services Union boss Gerard Hayes said mandates should be an “absolute last resort”.
“Australian healthcare workers are overwhelmingly pro vaccine and don’t need to be dictated to. The failure in vaccine policy has been the federal government’s bungled communication and purchasing efforts. Aged care workers are still telling us that they can’t get an appointment for a vaccine. In some cases appointments are being cancelled,” Mr Hayes said.
National cabinet agreed to mandate vaccines for the aged care sector in late June, but fewer than a third of the sector’s workers in NSW are fully vaccinated. Of the total 81,764 workers reported in NSW to date, 56 per cent are reported as having received a first dose and, of those, 32 per cent are fully vaccinated.
Brett Holmes, general secretary of the NSW Nurses and Midwives’ Association, echoed the concerns that lack of access needs to be addressed “before governments and employers consider compulsory vaccination, as well as support for those who may be hesitant to COVID-19 vaccination”.
“Our members continue to vent frustrations to us about their own difficulty in getting a vaccination, despite being identified in the priority eligibility groups,” he said.
There are 362 cases admitted to hospital, with 58 in intensive care and 24 requiring ventilation. Of the 58 cases in intensive care, 16 are aged under 50.
On Thursday, California became the first state in the US to require healthcare workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19, asking two million workers to be inoculated by the end of September.