As new COVID-19 wave looms, under-30s still can’t access fourth vaccine

As COVID-19 cases begin to rise again and reinfections become more common, experts are questioning why people under 30 are still ineligible for the fourth COVID-19 vaccine, despite it being available to the public since July.

While the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) expanded eligibility of a fourth vaccine shot to over-30s four months ago, it still “does not support making the winter booster dose available to healthy adults aged less than 30 years, as it is unclear whether the benefits outweigh the risks in this population”.

Erin Lewis works in hospitality and said she would get the fourth COVID-19 dose “tomorrow” if eligibility was expanded to under-30s.Credit:Paul Jeffers

“The primary goal of the Australian COVID-19 vaccine program is to minimise the risk of severe disease, including hospitalisation and death, from COVID-19,” the Department of Health said in a statement.

Experts have warned that a “variant soup” of coronavirus has arrived in the state and the new Omicron offshoots will be better at evading immunity and drive up infections.

The new wave of infections, which triggered a 25 per cent increase in reported coronavirus cases in Victoria in a week, has also sparked a fresh warning from infectious disease experts about the heightened risk of being reinfected with the virus.

There were 1892 new COVID-19 cases in Victoria on Friday, up from 1350 the week before and 990 a fortnight ago.

Professor Stephen Kent, an infectious diseases expert from the Doherty Institute, said that while COVID-19 is almost always mild in healthy people under 30 that have had three doses of vaccine, long COVID is still an issue.

“However, large numbers of infections — even in the vaccinated — obviously drive numbers up, which poses a risk to everyone,” he said.

Infectious diseases physician Dr Paul Griffin, from the University of Queensland, said giving people the option to choose whether to have a fourth dose would be helpful.

“Having the option there for people to make their own determination would only be a good thing,” he said.

“The thing with younger people is that their actual risk of severe disease is less, but it’s not zero. And younger people certainly are responsible for the bulk of transmission.”

“In the context of the messaging around a possible next wave and having a proportion of the community who are responsible for a significant amount of transmission, it seems a little incongruous to me,” he said of the ATAGI’s cautious approach to expanding the fourth dose to those under 30.

According to the ​Australian Immunisation Register, nearly 5 million Australians aged over 16 have received four doses of a COVID-19 vaccine as of October 27. The 15-30 age group comprises around 4.8 million people, almost all of whom have had at least two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine.

For many people under 30 working in industries where work cannot be done from home, there are fears of waning immunity from their last vaccine dose and the possibility of losing out on work because of infection.

Erin Lewis, 27, works in hospitality and has been infected with COVID-19 twice. The first time, she “definitely” caught it at her workplace in Richmond, along with the entire staff on shift at the time.

She said she was frustrated with the apparent lack of concern from the government for younger people and workers in public-facing industries.

“I work in an industry where I come into contact with a lot of people, but because I’m a casual employee, I have no access to sick leave,” she said. “I have a higher chance of getting it [COVID-19] – I have caught it twice already – and I don’t have access to the pandemic payments.”

The Pandemic Leave Disaster Payment was a lump sum paid out to those required to isolate as a result of a COVID-19 infection or testing requirements. The scheme ended on October 14 when almost all isolation and quarantine requirements were dropped across the country.

“I feel like I’m in this gap in society where I’m more likely to get it, but I am without the support structures if I do get it because I don’t have sick leave,” Lewis said.

If the ATAGI expanded the fourth dose to under-30s, she said: “I would go get vaccinated [with the fourth dose] tomorrow.”

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