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'This will benefit everyone': Health Minister suggests new vaccine plan may allow quicker reopening of society

An age-based approach was announced yesterday.

Image: RollingNews.ie

Updated Mar 31st 2021, 2:05 PM

THE MINISTER FOR Health has defended changes to Ireland’s vaccine queue, saying that the re-opening of the economy depends on how quickly those at most risk from the effects of Covid-19 can be protected from it.

Stephen Donnelly also told a technical briefing that he is willing to meet with unions who have expressed anger that their members have been moved down the priority list.

The government announced yesterday that the vaccine strategy would be changed to an age-based system once those deemed most at risk from Covid-19 have been vaccinated.

The original cohort of 15 groups for vaccination has been revised to nine, with those aged 64 and under set to be given doses last (descending from oldest to youngest). 

The decision means that key workers in frontline jobs and the education sector who cannot avoid a high risk of exposure to the virus will lose vaccine prioritisation.

Among those who’ve reacted negatively to the move are gardaí and teachers who would have been vaccinated sooner under the original system.

However, Donnelly responded to criticism by saying that the updated strategy was “not a measure” of how much the government valued certain roles in Irish society.

He revealed that he had spoken to Minister for Education Norma Foley and Minister for Justice Helen McEntee about meeting with teachers’ and garda unions to outline why the changes had been made.

The minister explained that the core aim of the vaccination programme should be to vaccinate the rest of the population in the shortest possible time-frame. 

He argued that an age-based approach would make the rollout more efficient and be better at protecting those at the highest risk of death or the severe effects of Covid-19 first.

“It is a reality that someone in their 50s is at a significantly greater risk in someone in their 40s,” he said.

“Our options for opening up society and staying home depend on protecting those at highest risk first.

“This decision will maximise the benefit to everyone by increasing our options to return to more normal lives, and a more open society.”

Asked why the government was only moving to an age-based system now, despite already knowing that older groups are more at risk from adverse effects of Covid-19, officials explained the decision had been made based on new evidence to do with vaccinations.

Chair of the National Immunisation Advisory Council (NIAC) Karina Butler described the original list as a “living document”, and drew a comparison between the effects of Covid-19 on older groups and younger groups.

“If we take for example, a healthy 20-34 year old and compared them with the risk for someone in the 55 to 65 year-old age group, it’s actually 70 times that of the younger person in terms of death.

“It’s over 20 times that for an ICU admission, and five times that for hospitalisation.

“Even if you go down to the 45 to 50 year-old compared with a younger person, it’s nine to 15 times the risk of death, ten times the risk of ICU admission, and three times the risk of hospitalisation.”

Donnelly also suggested he would publish “indicative timelines” that will outline when different age groups could be vaccinated in the coming weeks.

But he expressed reluctance towards the idea of publishing data on the expected delivery of vaccines ahead of time, saying that doing so “tends to cause anxiety” when targets aren’t met.

New recommendations published

Earlier, NIAC published its amended recommendations which described the new approach as the “most equitable and efficient way” of continuing the rollout.

The council said there was “no evidence to show a significantly increased risk” of getting severely ill from Covid-19 by occupation, saying that age “remains the strongest predictor of hospitalisation, ICU admission and death”. 

“An age-based approach, starting with the oldest, is a reasonable approach because the risk of a severe outcome from Covid-19 is correlated with increasing age, as has been seen nationally and internationally,” it said.

However, it also identified a number of groups at higher risk of infection and hospitalisation from Covid-19 that should be prioritised for vaccination. 

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Citing a Hiqa report, it said that members of the Travelling community, the Roma community and people who are homeless are at a higher risk.

NIAC said: “In view of the higher rates of the risk of severe disease, the likely underestimate of prevalence in these cohorts and the hard-to-reach nature of the communities above, it is recommended that all in these groups are prioritised for vaccination. A single-dose vaccine may be preferable for these groups, who may find it difficult to return for a second vaccine dose.”

The only single-dose vaccine currently approved in Europe is the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Ireland is due to receive its first supplies of this vaccine in mid-April. 

On occupation groups, it said that meat plant workers had a higher rate of hospitalisation and ICU admission in the first wave, but this had not been seen since November 2020.

“There is no evidence to show a significantly increased risk of severe Covid-19 disease, independent of age and other comorbidities, in any occupational group to prioritise them for vaccination above their age cohort,” NIAC said.

Because overwhelming evidence relates age to increased risk for disease severity, NIAC recommends an operationally simple, age-based programme commencing in the age groups from 64 years down as the most equitable and efficient way to protect all those in situations with a potentially higher risk of exposure to Covid-19.

The revised vaccine strategy, published by the Health Minister Stephen Donnelly last night, can be found here.

Contains reporting by Sean Murray.

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