Older people may face vaccine delay as HSE scrambles to revise rollout after advice on AstraZeneca

Lower priority groups may be inoculated earlier due to decision to recommend the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for people over 70 where possible

A Covid-19 HSE vaccination sign in Baldoyle, Dublin. People aged between 70-80 could be facing delays of two-three weeks for their vaccination under changes being drawn up by health officials. Photograph: Alan Betson

A Covid-19 HSE vaccination sign in Baldoyle, Dublin. People aged between 70-80 could be facing delays of two-three weeks for their vaccination under changes being drawn up by health officials. Photograph: Alan Betson

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The State’s plan for the rollout of coronavirus vaccines will be significantly reworked following a decision to recommend the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for people over 70 where possible.

People aged between 70-80 could be facing delays of two-three weeks for their vaccination under changes being drawn up by health officials.

At the same time, three cohorts are likely to be brought forward from next week onwards including healthcare workers who are not in direct contact with patients, people between the age of 65 and 69 and key workers, sources said last night.

The changes are being drawn up after chief medical officer Tony Holohan advised that those over 70 should be given the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, rather than the recently approved AstraZeneca shot. In a letter, he also advised that those over 65 living and working in long-term residential care should also be given these vaccines due to the increased risk in those settings.

The use of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which are based on a new technology called mRNA, in a GP setting had been seen as a challenge due to the demands of storing and administering them, as they need to be kept at ultra-low temperatures.

Officials are now scrambling to revise the vaccination schedule after a series of high-level meetings in recent days. However, it is understood that there will no changes to the vaccine schedule for those aged over 80, as they were due to receive the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines anyway.

The challenges

A HSE source said that they will have to “get creative” in finding ways to make the new vaccine plan work, adding that the challenge should not be underestimated.

One of the options being considered is bringing GPs together in groups, such as at pop-up vaccine areas in community centres, to more easily administer the sensitive mRNA vaccines to those over 70. Meanwhile some 35,000 doses of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine are due to be delivered here next week.

Dr Holohan gave his advice to the Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly after a report from the expert group on immunisation. The report from the National Immunisation Advisory Council (Niac) recommended that vaccination of over 70s should not be delayed but that where “practical and timely” the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines should be used.

However, the Government said that after Dr Holohan’s advice to Government, the HSE would not administer the AstraZeneca vaccine to anyone over 70.

Lower priority groups may be inoculated earlier than was originally anticipated as a result of the decision, one senior source indicated.

Different cohorts

Officials are looking at administering vaccines to different cohorts “in parallel rather than in sequence” in order to make maximum use of supplies, according to the source.“We aim to complete our deliberation before the weekend, so by then we should know where we’re going.”

Officials are said to be looking at a range of options to accommodate the logistical challenges of transporting, distributing and administering the mRNA vaccines in community settings.This may require further consultation with representative bodies such as the Irish Medical Organisation, it was indicated.

Although supplies of the AstraZeneca vaccine to Ireland are confirmed only up to the end of this month, officials say they are reassured by recent announcements by the manufacturers of the three authorised vaccines.

Further detail on vaccine deliveries, and when doses will be administered to each priority group, is expected next week.

Despite supply issues, Ireland’s rollout of Covid-19 vaccines is currently the fastest in Europe. Ireland and Denmark have administered doses to 4.1 per cent of their populations, the highest uptake of the 25 countries tracked by the European Centre for Disease Control.

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