Q&A: What are the latest changes to the Covid-19 vaccination plan?

Latest tweaks to vaccination programme cover over-50s and pregnant women

The Government has approved further changes to the Covid-19 vaccination plan on Tuesday, so what are they? Photograph: Liselotte Sabroe/EPA

The Government has approved further changes to the Covid-19 vaccination plan on Tuesday, so what are they? Photograph: Liselotte Sabroe/EPA

 

The Government has approved further changes to the Covid-19 vaccination plan on Tuesday, so what are they?

Who do these latest changes affect?
The recent tweaking of the vaccination rollout will affect those who are over 50, women who are pregnant, and healthy people who contracted the virus in the last six months. The changes follow recommendations from the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (Niac).

Who is Niac again?
Niac is basically the Nphet of the vaccination plan. The expert group considers data on vaccines and makes recommendations to Government on their use.

What is changing now?
Following Niac advice, use of the Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca vaccines were approved for people aged 50 and above.

Up to this point AstraZeneca had been limited to those aged 60 and older, due to concerns around a small number of cases of rare blood clots, in younger people who had received the vaccine.

Johnson & Johnson had been approved for use, but then paused before any doses were administered in the Republic, due to similar rare clotting issues.

The green light to use the one-shot vaccine, along with an expanded age range for AstraZeneca doses, is a big boost to the State’s vaccination effort.

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) has confirmed the benefits of Covid-19 protection from both vaccines outweigh the risks of rare blood clots.

What’s changing for pregnant women?
One of the other main changes is that pregnant women will now be prioritised for vaccination, with mRNA vaccines such as Pfizer or Moderna.

The new advice states pregnant women should be offered a vaccine between 14 and 36 weeks’ gestation, after consulting with their doctor.

This comes after seven cases of Covid-related placentitis were reported in Ireland, six of which led to a stillbirth. Niac’s assessment concluded there is “no evidence” that Covid-19 vaccines had any negative effect on the foetus or fertility.

Exactly when pregnant women will be able to register for vaccines is not yet clear, as the Health Service Executive (HSE) has to now incorporate the changes into the rollout.

And for those who have had Covid-19?
The final change will see healthy people under 50, who have contracted Covid-19 in the last six months, only require one dose rather than the usual two.

Niac has said previous infection effectively acts as a “booster,” so between antibodies and their first dose people will be considered fully vaccinated.

Those who are over 50, or immunocompromised, will still receive two doses of the vaccine - regardless of whether they had Covid-19 in recent months or not.

So are we back on track?
There had been some impatience in Government circles over the time Niac took to deliberate on the use of Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca, given public pressure for the speedy administration of vaccines, and lifting of restrictions thereafter.

So far 1,416,350 vaccines have been administered, with the over-70s, the medically high-risk, and those aged 69-65 currently eligible to receive vaccines.

The goal remains to vaccinate 80 per cent of adults with at least one dose by the end of June.

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly has said the new changes meant it was now “full steam ahead” for the vaccination programme.

However, there are continuing hiccups around supply, and it remains to be seen if advice on the use of Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca shots will be changed again, when all the over-50s have been vaccinated.