Delays to the Covid-19 vaccination roll-out in rural areas are widening an already stretched rural-urban divide, Maniototo residents say.
However, the Southern District Health Board (SDHB) has cited its district’s geographical spread— more than 60,000sq km — and 345,000 people as a factor in rolling out the vaccine right across the southern district.
SDHB further cites vaccine supply as an issue.
The national shortage of the Covid-19 vaccine the SDHB refers to delayed planned vaccination centres in Ranfurly and Roxburgh until late July, with the Ministry of Health announcing last month the existing supply of the Covid-19 vaccine was ‘‘tight’’ throughout the country and needed to be carefully managed for the next five weeks.
SDHB Covid-19 vaccine roll-out incident controller Hamish Brown said in the early stages of the roll-out the SDHB focused on border workers at ports in Dunedin and Invercargill, then Queenstown when the bubble opened, and health workers in larger centres.
This had led to a contingency list being put in place to avoid vaccine waste which actually meant ‘‘we started vaccinating group 3 populations in rural areas before we reached them in urban centres’’.
The plan was to ensure no-one was more than a one-hour drive from a location where they could receive the vaccine.
The SDHB said there was currently sufficient supply of the Pfizer vaccine for it to honour existing bookings during this period. However, it would pause the opening of some new clinics.
Existing clinics may be capped or run at a reduced capacity.
For Kyeburn woman Amie Pont, news of the delay caused frustration and concern for herself and her community.
It felt like the Covid-19 vaccine was inaccessible to rural communities, and she had spoken to many people who were concerned they were being left behind, she said.
‘‘There’s just been quite a few things that have felt ‘them and us’, and so this is just another thing that makes us feel these things,’’ she said.
‘‘We’ve debated vehicles, debated water, and now it’s whether or not we have the numbers required to be vaccinated against Covid.’’
‘‘How serious do they want us to take it? I’m not a farmer but I feel it in our community,’’ she said.
Mrs Pont was immune compromised after a recent cancer journey and was concerned the Maniototo’s isolation created a false impression the area was out of the reach of Covid.
Like many in the community, she travelled frequently for work, including to Wellington which had recently been impacted by an Australian visitor who later tested positive for the virus.
‘‘We’re a travelling community, a mobile community and we have kids all around the country for sports competitions.’’
Those sentiments were echoed by Ranfurly businesswoman Rose Voice.
Mrs Voice said she was frustrated with what appeared to be inconsistencies with how the vaccine was rolled out across the country.
Her 92-year-old mother lived with her and was unable to receive the vaccine, but Mrs Voice knew people under the age of 70, who were not essential workers and based in other areas who had already received both doses, she said.
There was a lack of communication regarding the roll-out and the delays to the vaccination clinic in the Maniototo, she said.
‘‘I would like some information as to why it’s so different in each area and who’s in charge of this — the Southern DHB can’t seem to give any information,’’ she said.
‘‘The common feeling is we’re quite safe in the Maniototo because we’re so isolated, but I came back from Wellington on Tuesday so we know that [perception] isn’t real,’’ she said.
Federated Farmers Otago president Mark Patterson said while concerns about access to the Covid-19 vaccine had not been raised directly with him, he would expect rural communities to have equal access to their urban counterparts.
‘‘As best we can ascertain from someone involved in the roll-out, it’s a bit ad hoc,’’ he said.
Mr Patterson advised people to register their interest in receiving the vaccine with their local medical centre to ensure they were not overlooked.
Southern DHB Covid-19 vaccine roll-out incident controller Hamish Brown said it was important to maintain vaccinations for the most vulnerable groups and to ensure regional equity of the supply across the district.
‘‘These measures are being echoed across the country as we all prepare to ramp up delivery later in July,’’ he said.
Bookings for both the Ranfurly and Roxburgh clinics would be available, by invitation only, through an online system from July 26.
Initially Roxburgh will be allocated 90 doses per week and Ranfurly 108 per week, but this would increase as the SDHB scaled up.
Allocations across the district were carefully managed by the Covid vaccine programme team in line with supply and the SDHB’s production plan, Mr Brown said.
It was important people remembered there would be enough vaccine for everyone over the age of 16 to receive two doses by the end of 2021 and everyone would be given the opportunity to be vaccinated.
‘‘We are in a fortunate situation that there is no Covid in our communities.
‘‘So while we are wanting to progress the roll-out programme as quickly as possible, our community is not at risk while we manage the availability of vaccine,’’ Mr Brown said.