Virus ‘eliminated’ in Vic, vaccine coming

The Victorian government has outlined its plans to roll out the coronavirus vaccine, as the state marks four weeks without community transmission. 

Health Minister Martin Foley said the state’s 28 days without a local case of coronavirus “technically equates” to elimination of the virus, given it represents two 14-day incubation periods.

But he warned the threat of the pandemic was “real and ongoing”.

“There is a long way to go before we can claim it is over,” Mr Foley said on Wednesday.

He says the state government will establish nine vaccine hubs at public hospitals to house the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine when it becomes available. 

The hubs will be based at Albury-Wodonga Health, Austin Health, Ballarat Health, Barwon Health, Bendigo Health, Goulburn Valley Health, Latrobe Health, Monash Health and Western Health. 

The vaccine is the first to be approved for use in Australia and is expected to be available from late February for priority groups including health workers, hotel quarantine staff and aged care workers and residents. 

Two doses of the vaccine are required at least three weeks apart and it must be stored and transported at -70C. 

Rhonda Stuart from Monash Health said the hospital had two freezers “ready and waiting” to store up to 180,000 doses. 

She said a quarter of Monash Health staff – about 5000 workers – who could potentially come into contact with COVID-19 patients would be prioritised for the vaccine. 

“As soon as it hits our doors, we’ll be vaccinating our staff,” Associate Professor Stuart said. 

While the vaccine will not be compulsory, Mr Foley anticipates an “incredibly high” level of take-up. 

Both he and Victoria’s Deputy Chief Health Officer Allen Cheng stressed the vaccine meets high safety, efficiency and quality standards. 

“This is probably one of the most closely scrutinised vaccines that we have,” Professor Cheng said, noting more than 100 million people across the globe have already received the jab. 

Mr Foley took aim at federal Liberal MP Craig Kelly, who continues to promote misinformation about the pandemic on social media. 

“It’s disappointing that public figures should run anti-science, anti-evidence and anti-health quackery. I don’t want to give him more oxygen than he deserves,” he said. 

Victorian Liberal leader Michael O’Brien sought to distance himself from Mr Kelly, describing him as a “federal MP for NSW” and “not from my state”. 

“I’ll be very happy to get the vaccine because I think it is important we send the message to the community that we need to get this virus defeated through vaccination,” the opposition leader said.

Mr O’Brien, however, will not support the government’s plans to extend the state of emergency for another nine months.

Victoria is the only state that caps the maximum length of time a state of emergency can remain in force. The current state of emergency is due to expire on March 15. 

Crossbencher Fiona Patten, who previously supported a six-month extension of the powers, proposed the introduction of COVID-specific laws to enforce public health measures such as hotel quarantine, mask-wearing and the state’s travel permit system.

Mr O’Brien said he would be happy to look at such legislation if it meant an end to the state of emergency. 

“All it’s doing is keeping people in a state of fear, state of uncertainty, or lacking confidence,” Mr O’Brien said. 

Mr Foley said he was surprised the opposition did not support the bill, as their federal counterparts did. 

“The prime minister asked states to establish a hotel system, asked the states to do what is technically a Commonwealth responsibility. The only way we can do that is through the state of emergency,” he said. 

There are 21 active cases of COVID-19 in Victoria, all in hotel quarantine. 

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