An urgent call for improvement: sluggish vaccination rollout and poor pandemic preparedness in disability sector

| 27 Jul 2021

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UNSW Canberra Professor Helen Dickinson has called for the government to improve the COVID-19 vaccination rollout for people with disability.

The Public Service Research Group Director, in partnership with UNSW researcher Professor Gemma Carey, and University of Melbourne academics Professor Anne Kavanagh and Professor Gwynnyth Llewellyn, is calling for action to improve COVID-19 vaccination and pandemic preparedness for people with disability.

The statement condemns efforts so far by state and federal governments to increase vaccination rates for people with disability, as well as those working in the sector.

“Whilst this group is diverse, people with disability generally typically have higher rates of chronic illnesses and health conditions that mean that they are more likely to be at risk of serious illness or death because of COVID,” Prof. Dickinson said.

“Added to this, people with disability often face discrimination within the health system, making it more difficult to access services that they need. Some people living in group homes will have experienced discrimination in accessing health services.

“When we add to this that in-reach services have not been effective, and they may have received conflicting messages about vaccines and where and how to access these it results in a really problematic situation.”

The government made people with disability, including those in group homes, and their support workers, priorities as a part of group 1a in the vaccine rollout. However, Prof. Dickinson noted that while only 19 per cent of residents are fully vaccinated, which illustrates some significant difficulties.

Originally appearing as the fourth statement of concern published by The Centre of Research Excellence in Disability and Health, the authors called out a lack of pandemic preparedness in the sector, urging government to adopt best practice when it comes to planning for potential future outbreaks.

This statement follows recent survey work which revealed that only half of disability support workers felt comfortable assisting someone with COVID-19, and that many wanted more training on this topic, including hands-on instruction.

Prof. Dickinson highlights some of the immediate work that the government can do to address these shortfalls.

Make sure all support workers are able to access vaccines, preferably Pfizer so that they can be rapidly vaccinated, and offer paid leave so that workers are not financially penalised for accessing vaccinations.”

Recent surveys also revealed that vaccine hesitancy among disability support workers related largely to concerns about vaccine safety and efficacy, as well as comparatively low awareness of the importance of vaccination in reducing COVID-19 transmission and illness rates. 

[The government] should undertake a campaign to ensure that workers have a clear sense of the correct information around vaccinations.”

Pandemic preparedness plans including outbreak management plans and financial support for workers who experience interruptions to their employment, are also recommended.

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