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YOUR COVID-19 AND VACCINE QUESTIONS ANSWERED

With new developments every day, it can be difficult to keep up with the latest health advice around COVID-19 and the vaccine. Here are the answers to your COVID-19 and vaccine questions.

All recommended guidelines reported here are accurate at time of publishing. For latest updates on the vaccine and COVID-19, please visit health.gov.au

Australia is a ‘vaccination nation’, with more than 95% of five-year-olds immunised against many infectious and life-threatening diseases.

Through vaccination against COVID-19, we can stem the spread in our communities, and reduce the harm caused. With increasing vaccination rates our fastest pathway to returning life to normal, we all play a role in helping to protect ourselves, our loved ones and our communities, by coming forward for vaccination.

“All data shows us that vaccination lowers risks and helps protect our communities, and so we encourage all members to consider getting vaccinated if and when they are eligible,” says HCF Chief Medical Officer, Dr Andrew Cottrill.

With vaccination passports likely to become the norm, clinical trials underway for a vaccine for under 12s, and regular booster shots on the cards, it’s often difficult to keep up with the latest guidelines and health advice around COVID-19 and the vaccine.

An important reminder when looking for information on COVID-19 and the vaccine is to seek out reputable and trusted sources (i.e., not Facebook, Wikipedia or your know-it-all neighbour).

Stick with Australian Government health websites or your GP when looking for advice. Avoid information from disreputable sources, social media, or data that isn’t backed up by government-approved facts, statistics and research.

Vaccine passports: the new norm

If you want to travel, visit the gym or go to a restaurant as lockdown eases, it’s likely you'll need to prove you’re fully vaccinated, say experts.

A vaccine passport means being able to show proof that you’re vaccinated in order to gain entry to a specific business or location. Professor Catherine Bennett, Chair of Epidemiology at Deakin University, says the decision about whether they become mandatory in some contexts may not even be in Australia’s hands.

In terms of travel overseas, “the rules set by other countries will likely determine this,” she says. “Travelers not only risk exposing fellow travelers if unvaccinated, [there’s a] risk they may be turned back at borders.”

While these measures might sound extreme, Professor Bennett says the Delta strain of COVID-19 has left us with little choice.

“From UK data, we know infection rates are three times higher in unvaccinated people. Delta is also associated with a much higher viral load during infection, so a case is more easily able to infect others. One person infects 6 people on average, compared with 2 or 3 with previous variants. Plus, Delta has a shorter incubation period, making it harder for contract tracing to be quick enough to find those exposed to the virus before they become infectious.”

There is growing evidence that vaccine passports aren’t far away. While there is no current law that makes vaccine passports compulsory in Australia, the federal government has announced they’re under consideration.

“A business, under property law, has the ability to say, ‘No, you can’t come in’. That’s a legitimate thing for them to do, and they’re doing that to protect their own workers, to protect their other clients,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison told radio listeners last month.

In August, as part of its commitment to the health and safety of staff and passengers, Qantas announced all workers would need to be fully vaccinated. Globally, business leaders like Microsoft, Google and Disney have all laid out rules around who needs to be vaccinated to work onsite.

Smartraveller.gov.au states that while vaccination is not mandatory, travelers should “follow expert health advice and access a COVID-19 vaccine as soon as practicable”.

Delta vs other strains of COVID-19 — what’s the difference?

Simply put, just like the flu, there are different strains of COVID-19. The Delta strain is different from what we’ve seen before, in that it’s more transmissible.

“Delta is more efficient at establishing an infection in the respiratory system, so you only need a small infecting dose to become infected,” says Professor Bennett.

The first Delta case was identified in December 2020, with the variant now detected in around 100 countries. It’s now the dominant variant worldwide.

One study has shown the average time from exposure to infection with previous strains was 6 days, but with Delta it’s 4 days. This makes it more difficult to identify contacts before they’re infected and infectious. Vaccination is therefore highly recommended as soon as you are eligible. You can find out if you’re eligible with the Government’s Eligibility Checker. If you are, you’ll be able to choose from a number of vaccination locations in your area.

Research shows that Delta is twice as contagious as previous strains of COVID-19.

Because Delta is more transmissible, it’s more likely we’ll contract the virus if we come into contact with someone who is infected.

COVID-19 vaccine and children

Since 13 September, children aged 12-15 years have been eligible to book a COVID-19 Pfizer vaccine — a move that will support the NSW back-to-school rollout slated to start October 25.

But what about younger children aged under 12 years?

“With previous variants, kids were spared from infection, but not Delta,” says Professor Bennett. “Children are just as likely to acquire an infection as others, and while they are still less likely to have serious illness, the risk is not zero.”

To date there have been no deaths among children where COVID-19 was declared as the cause in Australia.

The reason under 12s are not yet eligible for the vaccine is because clinical trials for this age group are still being carried out. Children’s immunity is different, and they may have different side effects and need smaller doses, so it’s important that trials are done on this younger age group before vaccines are approved.

Pfizer and Moderna are both conducting clinical trials on children under 12, but with many child infections coming from the household, at this stage the best way to protect our kids is for all adults to get the vaccine.

Which vaccine is right for you?

Currently, there’s more than one approved COVID-19 vaccine in Australia. The most commonly available are Pfizer and AstraZeneca. The Moderna vaccine is also now available at select pharmacies across Australia, with at least 2 more vaccines under review for approval for use in the near future. The Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Moderna vaccines require you to get 2 shots.

All approved vaccines have met the strict standards of the Therapeutic Goods Associations (TGA), which means the benefits of the vaccine far outweigh the risks. All health products that we use in Australia, including vaccines, prescription medication, vitamins and even sunscreen, have to be regulated and approved by the TGA.

While different vaccines work in different ways to offer protection, all approved and available vaccines in Australia help protect you against developing COVID-19 symptoms and serious illness requiring hospitalisation.

“The more people vaccinated, the better the population protection,” says Professor Bennett. “It is harder to control infection rates in the community when a reasonable proportion remain unvaccinated. This can not only overload hospitals with dramatically higher rates of serious illness, but also makes it more likely that people who can’t be vaccinated for medical reasons will be exposed to the virus.”

All COVID-19 vaccines are free for everyone in Australia, even if you don’t have a Medicare card, or you’re not a permanent resident or Australian citizen. Your vaccine provider cannot charge you for your vaccine or the appointment.

Some people might be better suited to one vaccine over another. Things such as your age, medical history and location may dictate which vaccine you receive. You can speak to your GP, or refer to the Australian Government health website for information on the vaccine you are eligible to receive and why.

What are the side effects of the vaccination?

As with all vaccines, you may experience side effects. Some people report having cold or flu-like symptoms in the hours following the vaccination. Some may also experience tenderness at the injection site. Most side effects of the COVID-19 vaccine are not life-threatening, and should pass within a few days. Many people do not feel any serious side effects.

A link has been made between the AstraZeneca vaccine and a side effect called thrombosis. This may occur in around 4-6 people in every million on average after being vaccinated. While the risk is there, and you should closely monitor for any unexpected symptoms, it’s very rare.

Within some overseas trials, there have also been rare cases of myocarditis and pericarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle and lining) in men under the age of 30, following the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Most cases were mild and patients quickly recovered, with medical experts saying the benefits of the vaccine far outweigh any risks.

Find out more information on the risk of blood clots and the vaccine.

Contact your GP with any concerns, or if you experience any unexplained severe symptoms, and call triple zero (000) in an emergency.

Are the vaccinations 100% effective?

Even once you’re fully vaccinated, it's still possible to get COVID-19.

However, the risks of becoming seriously ill, being hospitalised and spreading the virus drop dramatically. This is why getting vaccinated is so important, not just for our own health, but in protecting the wider community — especially older Australians, those with pre-existing health conditions, and children under the age of 12, who are not yet eligible for the vaccine.

Clinical trials are underway to find out if we’ll need COVID-19 vaccine booster shots, and how often. This is because we don’t yet know how long the initial vaccines last. The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) will advise the federal government on the booster shot rollout once findings are finalised.

Useful resources

There are many places you can get information about COVID-19 and the vaccines. Some good resources include:

The Australian Government’s Vaccine Eligibility Checker tool will tell you if you’re eligible right now, and where you can get a vaccine. It will also help you book an appointment.

The Australian Government Health website has all the latest information about COVID-19 and the vaccine.

The 24/7 National Coronavirus and COVID-19 Vaccine Helpline (1800 020 080) can help with information about travel restrictions, local testing sites, the vaccine and more. You cannot book a vaccine appointment via the helpline.

For the Translating and Interpreting Service (TIS National), which can connect you with over 3,000 interpreters in more than 50 languages, call 131 450.

For Australian Government vaccine information in 63 languages click here.

For help using the COVIDSafe app, click here.

You can also visit our COVID-19 support page, where you’ll find information on the latest vaccination eligibility, financial support for eligible members and more.

First published September 2021.

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