Pregnant women are still being denied access to the Pfizer vaccine despite being a priority in the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, with one doctor raising concerns the mixed messaging could encourage conspiracy theories.
- Confusion among doctors and health departments is leading to pregnant women being refused a COVID-19 vaccine
- Pregnant women are eligible as a priority group for the vaccine, but some doctors remain unaware
- State health departments are offering differing advice, with some refusing to consider pregnant women a top priority
In one case, a 39-year old mother has struggled to convince doctors she is eligible for the Pfizer vaccine and still does not have an appointment, despite living in Sydney’s west, a COVID-19 hotspot.
Another mother in Queensland has told the ABC her state health department told her she was not part of the priority group.
That is in stark contrast to the federal health department advice, issued two weeks ago, that states pregnant women aged 16 and older are a priority and immediately eligible for the Pfizer vaccine.
Research has shown that women who contract COVID-19 while pregnant have an increased risk of severe illness and there is an increased risk of complications for the baby.
The risk of infection is real, with the Sydney Ultrasound for Women in Burwood being listed as a NSW exposure site on July 27, and the Maternity Assessment Centre at Joan Kirner Women’s and Children’s Hospital listed as an exposure site after a positive case visited on August 6.
Tried to do the right thing, but giving up
Katrina, who did not want to use her surname, is due to give birth in less than two weeks at Blacktown Hospital, in the epicentre of Sydney’s current COVID-19 outbreak.
The 39-year old is booked in for a caesarean section and is required to spend a week in hospital.
“Thinking about spending a week in hospital in Blacktown in a COVID hotspot where both me and my infant son are going to be very vulnerable there for a week, it’s not a nice thing to think about,” she said.
She asked doctors at the Women’s Health Clinic, where she gets her regular check-ups, about getting vaccinated last Friday.
“I spoke to the first doctor and she said, ‘You’re not eligible, it’s only for pregnant women with specific health conditions,'” Katrina said.
“I thought that doesn’t sound quite right knowing what I know, so I asked another doctor at the same hospital on the same day and he said, ‘I don’t think you are eligible but I will give you a note that says I advise that you should.'”
Katrina asked the doctor to book her into the vaccine hub at Blacktown Hospital but he said that was not possible.
She then applied through the national eligibility checker but was only offered appointments for the AstraZeneca shot or bookings after her due date.
Katrina called the health hotline, waited an hour, and was told there was nothing that could be done to help her.
“I give up,” she said.
“I have tried to do the right thing, I have tried to follow the government advice, I have tried talking to GPs and doctors and hospitals and going online and calling up.”
Katrina questioned why students in Sydney hotspot areas could get vaccinated ahead of her, given research showed pregnant women who contracted COVID were more at risk of severe illness.
Different advice depending on where you live
Sue (not her real name) had trouble booking an appointment due to issues with the online national eligibility checker, though she was able to register her interest once the form had been updated.
The 34-year-old from Queensland’s Sunshine Coast said the national online form provided a list of GPs she could call but it had no online bookings.
“It’s disheartening,” she said.
“Do I want to spend two hours trying to find an appointment?”
Sue also applied via the Queensland Department of Health, which sent her an email that stated Pfizer vaccine supplies remained limited but would increase in October.
It said healthcare workers, hotel quarantine workers, border workers and aged care workers were within the priority group, but it did not list pregnant women.
“I’m not in any way saying that I should be a priority over any of these other people, but it does put an asterisk beside the constant messaging that it’s up to Australians to solve the COVID issue by getting vaccinated,” she said.
“All it’s done is made me more worried about getting COVID while pregnant without providing any solution.”
The email suggested Sue could get an appointment by calling around GPs or otherwise wait until October.
“It felt like a slap in the face,” she said.
“It’s not like I’m saying I am more important … I don’t have a problem with the priority, it’s just that it feels like it’s being pushed on us … but then you try and get vaccinated and you are told there is nothing for you.”
The Queensland health department has confirmed to the ABC that it does not consider pregnant women a priority at the moment.
“Due to constrained supply, we are currently prioritising high-priority workers and anyone who is due to receive their second Pfizer dose,” a spokesperson for the department said.
“Each week as our supply increases, we’re releasing more vaccination appointment invitations for eligible people who have registered … if you want a vaccine, make sure you’ve joined the queue and register your interest.”
In New South Wales, the state health department this week started advertising that women were eligible for the Pfizer vaccine, despite the federal advice being released more than two weeks ago.
Supply and mixed messaging the issue, not hesitancy
Melbourne obstetrician Nisha Khot has warned mixed messaging could result in the spread of conspiracy theories.
“I think the fact the federal government lists pregnancy [in phase 1b] means it should be the same across the country,” she said.
“It is time that we remove these artificial barriers and differences so that women across Australia can with some confidence get the same level of care in any part of Australia.
Dr Khot, who is a council member of The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RANZCOG), conceded not all doctors were across the latest advice despite attempts to spread the word.
“I can also understand my colleagues not having that information at hand, I can [imagine] that at Blacktown Hospital,” she said.
“Doctors would be really busy and under the pump given they are sitting in the centre of the current outbreak, so they may not have had the time to actually update their own knowledge of what has changed recently in the vaccination recommendations.”
Dr Khot said when it came to patients, most were keen to get vaccinated, and at this stage hesitancy was not the issue — supply was.
Due to Pfizer doses being limited, some women have even asked if they can get the AstraZeneca vaccine.
“In that situation what I have said to them is currently Pfizer is recommended in pregnancy, AZ is not, so even if you were to book the appointment, you would not be given the AZ vaccine because it’s not currently recommended,” she said.