OHS Matters: COVID-19, Vaccines and Workers

 

“We believe that COVID-19 vaccines are going to be rolled out in the near future - and that some workers/workplaces will be designated ‘priority’ and will be receiving them first. What can you tell us about this?”

 

You are right - there is a lot happening in this ‘space’ at the moment. Firstly, it’s important to know that in Australia all vaccines will be free of charge. Discussions between the States and Federal Health departments have taken place to identify priority groups who will be first in line to get vaccinated. These considerations include occupation.

The first category, 1A - those facing the highest risk of infection - is likely to include the following:

• Hotel quarantine workers

• Airport workers

• Front line health workers

• Workers involved in the vaccination program

• Private aged care workers and residents

If there are contractors on these sites, they too need to be invited to receive the vaccination.

Employers of Category 1A workers have already received notification that they will be asked to identify and nominate workers who will then be sent an invitation to register for the vaccination. Workers then need to contact the service delivering the vaccine to make an appointment.

Workers and others who will be in the next categories, 1B and 2A, are still being finalised. However, 1B is likely to include:

• Emergency service workers

• Correctional services (workers and inmates)

• Workers in the meat and poultry industries

• Other health care workers

• Those at high risk such as adults over 80 years of age (and then those between 70 and 79); Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people over 55 years of age, and younger adults with underlying medical conditions

Yet to be finalised is whether Correctional Services (workers and inmates) will be in Category 1B.

Advice for HSRs: If you work in one of these industries, or in one that is potentially in 1B, then go to your employer now and remind them that they need to consult with you and the other HSRs when putting together the list of workers to be included in the list.

What vaccines will workers be receiving?

To date, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) has approved the Pfizer/BioNTech and AstraZenica vaccines, and is considering the NOVAVAX vaccine.

The Pfizer vaccine appears to be the more effective of the two approved, with 95 per cent effectiveness, compared to the AstraZenica one, which seems to be 62 per cent effective.

However, it has also been discovered that if the standard two doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine are administered 12 weeks apart, then the effectiveness increases to 90 per cent in preventing mild to moderate disease, and 100 per cent in preventing severe disease. This is great news as the Pfizer vaccine must be kept at  -70°C±10°C, compared to the Astra vaccine, which needs to be kept at between 3 and eight degrees Celsius. We are also going to have many more Astra vaccines.

The Australian government has purchased 10 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine, but this is manufactured overseas and these doses will not arrive all at once. Information from Victoria’s DHHS is that this state is expected to receive 11,000 doses from late February, doubling for second dose 3-4 weeks after that.

With the AstraZeneca being manufactured by CSL in Melbourne, there will be many more doses available: 3.8 million imported and 50 million locally manufactured. Of these, it is expected that up to 250,000 doses per week will be available for Victoria.

This means that the majority of Australians are likely to be vaccinated with the AstraZeneca vaccine. It is also likely that the Pfizer vaccine will be used for those in Category 1A.

However, there is another problem: due to the fact that the Astra trials had few people over 65 who were actually infected, the figures for efficacy in older people is not known. And so, in its approval of the Astra vaccine, the TGA noted that the ‘decision to immunise an elderly patient [with Astra] should be decided on a case-by-case basis, with consideration of age, co-morbidities and their environment.”

So those over 65 should get the Pfizer vaccine to be absolutely sure of the efficacy.  It is very likely, though, that both vaccines are effective in the over 65s – we just don’t have the evidence yet.

Of course, all these issues raise further questions regarding equity and access to the best vaccines.

The Victorian government has some information on the vaccine program on the DHHS website, which will be updated as more information is known. The information on Australia’s vaccination strategy, including information on the approval process, the rollout strategy as it stands currently, and much more can be found in a Federal government document: Australia’s CoVID-19 Vaccination and Treatment Strategy.

Are the vaccines approved by the TGA safe?

There are many people who are concerned about the safety of these vaccines, particularly given the speed with which they have been developed, tested and approved.

How the developers of all the vaccines have saved time on the trials, in order to get vaccines out quickly, is not on the safety trials, but rather the parts that have been foreshortened are the trials on checking and determining what the optimum doses are.

The role of the TGA is to ensure safety: it has been working, and will continue to work, with its international counterparts, sharing information on vaccine clinical trials, manufacturing and safety. It does this thoroughly before approving the vaccines. The government also has a comprehensive monitoring and surveillance plan so that any vaccine provided to Australians will be monitored to ensure ongoing safety.

We are also lucky in that many other countries have already commenced large vaccination programs, and we are getting results. There have been only 47 anaphylactic reactions in 10 million Pfizer vaccinations already administered, and only 19 reactions in 7.5 million Moderna vaccines.

These are very low rates: given the number of infections and COVID-related deaths and the fact that in countries where the vaccine rollout has begun there has been a fall in the rate of infection and death, the advice is that in order to control this pandemic, we must immunise as much of the world population as quickly as possible.

Will it be mandatory for workers to be vaccinated?

At this stage at least, neither the state nor federal governments are making it mandatory for anyone to be vaccinated. And this is how it should be as there is still insufficient evidence of the extent to which the vaccinations prevent a person being infectious.

It is possible individual employers may introduce a policy making the vaccine mandatory. Such a decision must follow consultation with the workforce, the HSR and relevant unions, and a thorough assessment of the risks. A requirement to vaccinate may be disproportionate in many workplaces. If there are concerns about this, HSRs and workers should contact their Union.

A recent case at the Fair Work Commission (Glover v Ozcare [2021] FWC 231) has some relevance to this issue.

In January of this year, a worker was permitted to pursue a claim that her employer, Ozcare, unfairly dismissed her by placing her on indefinite unpaid leave for declining to receive a flu vaccination, which the employer mandated for the COVID-19 pandemic.

The background is that the 64-year-old worker had declined the annual employer-provided influenza vaccination for 10 years, as she had suffered anaphylaxis immediately after receiving such a vaccine in the Philippines when she was seven.

In April last year, Ozcare advised her that due to the COVID-19 pandemic it had updated its immunisation policy and she was now required to be immunised against the flu.

The worker again refused and the employer placed her on paid leave, telling her she posed a significant risk to its aged care clients and was unfit to attend work. However, the worker’s paid entitlements ran out in October and at this point she claimed she had been unfairly dismissed. She told the Commission that her employer’s health and safety duty of care included not forcing her to be immunised when this posed a significant risk to her health. She claimed she could work safely with clients by using PPE and taking other safety precautions.

Fair Work Commissioner Jennifer Hunt rejected employer Ozcare’s claim that the care assistant had not been dismissed, finding its refusal to roster her on after she no more paid leave entitlements basically ended the worker’s employment.

“It is clear that [the worker] no longer can meet what [Ozcare] states [are] the inherent requirements of the position,” the Commissioner said. She stressed that it was “not inconceivable” that in the coming months more employers would make obtaining influenza vaccinations, and COVID-19 vaccinations when they became available, an inherent requirement of workers’ roles.

“It may be that a court or tribunal is tasked with determining whether [an] employer’s direction [to this effect] is lawful and reasonable, however in the court of public opinion, it may not be an unreasonable requirement. It may, in fact, be an expectation of a large proportion of the community,” the Commissioner said.

The outcome of this case will be closely monitored and could affect whether employers will be able to mandate the COVID-19 vaccination for their employees.

Note: The VTHC OHS team is currently planning a Live Show on the COVID-19 vaccines, which will cover the planned roll-out, the different vaccines, how this will be organised and more. They will have two experts from DHHS Victoria who will be able to answer questions on the vaccines themselves, how these will be administered, and the staged roll out.

The date has not yet been finalised, but will be announced on the We Are Union OHS Facebook page: facebook.com/ohsreps