The Minister for Health and Aged Care, Mark Butler, has revealed that aged care residents could be in line for the fifth COVID-19 dose before winter, and that boosters and antiviral treatments for the general public are not out of the question.
Minister Butler appeared on Tuesday night’s edition of 7.30 on ABC where he was asked about the Government’s COVID-19 strategy – one that was labelled as “give as little as possible to as few people as possible” by the host, Laura Tingle.
While many restrictions have been removed, last December the Government released a National COVID-19 Health Management Plan for 2023 which included the provision of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), Rapid Antigen Tests (RATs) and access to a surge workforce for aged care homes in the case of an outbreak.
Minister Butler defended the Government’s current approach to COVID-19, explaining that discussions are underway to ensure Australia’s most vulnerable people are protected from any winter wave.
“We have a range of supports in place in the aged care system, in disabilities and the hospital system, particularly for those who are vulnerable to severe disease,” said Minister Butler.
“But as to a potential fifth dose or additional booster dose, I’ve made [it] clear the advice to me from ATAGI (Australian Technical Group on Immunisation) was that we should expect advice from them very early this year about [an] additional booster dose.
“As we move into April, May and June, we need to think firstly about an additional booster dose… and need to think about additional communications campaigns to the community about the need for them to consider very seriously getting those additional boosters.”
Older Australians were among the first group to receive a winter booster last year as COVID-19 cases in residential aged care peaked on three occasions – in April, May and July of 2022.
Nationally, the worst of the winter peak was actually in mid-Autumn when the rolling 7-day average nearly hit 57,000 cases. Residents in aged care remained on high alert as one of the most affected populations – by the end of July more than 15,000 residents had an active infection.
In contrast, the latest Omicron wave is receding after a mid-December peak of 16,040 nationwide. Australia currently has 6,544 active cases, the lowest figure since the start of November, 2022.
But with almost half of those cases in aged care – 2,743 – it will be a cautious few months as new COVID-19 strains continue to pop up.
Those aged 65 and older should expect to be the first in line for the latest rollout and if the timeline matches 2022, an announcement should be made in February on COVID-19 vaccination recommendations.
Minister Butler said this could include new recommendations regarding oral antiviral treatments, such as Lagevrio and Paxlovid, which are currently only available to people aged 70 and over, or those 50 and over with specific risk factors.
“I’d like to see consideration continued to expand the eligibility where that’s clinically effective for people for antivirals,” said Minister Butler.
“We as a nation bought hundreds of thousands of doses of these highly effective antivirals and they should be as widely available as the clinical advice indicates it.
“I’d like to see that continue to be under advisement.”
Minister Butler also spoke about the challenges facing General Practitioners (GPs) and the healthcare sector.
In particular, many regional locations have lost their GP workforce leaving aged care residents and people with chronic medical conditions lacking access to a regular doctor.
Minister Butler said many issues were due to Medicare and that the Government has been working hard to improve the system for older people.
“Frankly, I think our general practice system right now is in the worst shape it has been in, in the 40-year history of Medicare,” said Minister Butler.
“We’ve been working through them with the Australian Medical Association (AMA), the College of General Practice, nursing groups, allied health groups and patient groups as well to come up with some recommendations to strengthen Medicare that will be actioned in our Budget later this year.
“It’s been a very constructive, cooperative process, with all of those groups who, frankly, don’t always see eye to eye about the need for a truly 21st century Medicare system that reflects the disease profile of an older population, a population that has more complex chronic diseases.”
Minister Butler acknowledged that the current healthcare system is not designed to maximise the efficiency of care between GPs, hospitals or aged care homes, and it needs greater attention to modernise the delivery of care.
There have been calls to integrate GPs into the new in-home aged care model as a way to support GPs and for patient rebates to be restored for phone consultations.
The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) believes that additional funding for GPs will ensure they continue to provide quality care to older Australians living at home.