This article does not constitute medical advice. It is the opinion of the writer.
Vax and the City: Every public health official in Australia agrees that mass vaccination is the only way out of this crisis. We at Time Out recommend that you get vaccinated as soon as you can, if that is appropriate for your own health. Please speak to a medical professional about what is right for you. Here's what you need to know about how to get a vaccine right now.
Hi, I’m Max, I’m 38, and I’m partially vaccinated against Covid-19. But among my peers aged 18 to 39, I’m in the minority. That’s because, according to the federal government’s original plan for a staggered timetable of when certain people can access the jab, I’m technically not yet eligible – I'm not old enough, nor am I a carer, frontline worker, essential infrastructure operator or transport personnel. Of course, the virus really doesn’t care about that, it wants to munch through my lungs all the same. But as a resident of Sydney, a city that had experienced relatively little Covid-19 in the community, that wasn’t too much of a concern to me. I was happy to wait my turn.
Then an unvaccinated limo driver picked up an infectious flight attendant at the International Terminal of Kingsford Smith Airport in mid-June, and my priorities changed.
Up until that point, I, like most Sydneysiders, had enjoyed relative normality for more than a year, save for a few passing surges with a handful of tightened restrictions. Our city had never endured anything like the kind of drawn-out lockdown experienced by Melbourne for much of 2020 and the rest of the world until far more recently, let alone scores of hospitalisations and deaths. By global standards, it was almost embarrassing how good Sydney had it – as a Brit (who has been in Australia for ten years), telling folks back in Blighty about going to boat parties and musicals and fancy dinners and festivals, while they were still facing unending months stuck inside, felt as gauche as bragging about sports cars or designer labels.
This run of good fortune lulled me into the belief, albeit naive, that Sydney was untouchable. Girt by sea and Covid-free, life Down Under had been held up as the gold standard of how to successfully manage a pandemic. And with world-class contract tracers, draconian yet effective border controls and two highly protective, successfully trialed and mass-produced vaccines on our side, a post-pandemic world beckoned. But then in mid-June, Delta leapfrogged all of our defenses. A variant so relentlessly transmissible that it could hop on the breath of an infected person into its next host with mere seconds in proximity. A variant so easily spread that for every case discovered several more are guaranteed. With barely an elbow bump, Sydney was introduced to the pandemic as the rest of the world – and Melbourne – had known it: escalating numbers; entire households infected; lockdown life ad infinitum; and an unending train of daily press conferences.
The virulence of the Delta strain means only a prolonged lockdown can prevent widespread hospitalisations and deaths in a largely unvaccinated population, according to NSW's top health expert Kerry Chant. This thrusts Australia’s vaccination rollout to the front lines of the state's battle against the virus, and I was ready to do my part by joining the ranks of those innoculated, as soon as I could.
This, however, was easier said than done.
Because AstraZeneca, the one vaccine we have an accessible supply of, has been linked to a rare blood clotting disorder in a handful of recipients under the age of 60, the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) only approved Pfizer for Australians under 60 years of age. With existing stockpiles of Pfizer already earmarked for priority jabs, it could be October before under-40s are finally able to get their first of two shots, and January 2022 before herd immunity could feasibly be achieved.
The equation isn’t hard: if the spread of Delta is too great a danger to unlock an unvaccinated city, some form of lockdown could be necessary in Sydney until widespread vaccinations are available. Which could take months. Sobering as this thought was, it seemed that people under 40, like myself, would have no choice but to wait. Until, on June 28, the prime minister made a shock announcement, stating that people under 40 could receive the AstraZeneca vaccine after consultation with their GP.
There followed a media storm about the dangers of AstraZeneca, prompting a barrage of armchair commentary and doom-laden warnings from some of the nation’s top health experts, but being given the opportunity and agency to make that choice for myself was incredibly liberating. Doing some research revealed a far less ominous picture. European studies suggested as few as one in 100,000 jabs resulted in a blood clot, with some even suggesting that the risk of developing a blood clot was higher with Covid-19 than with the vaccine. This isn’t to minimise the health advice or downplay the seriousness of the potential blood clots, which can be fatal. But for me personally, there were risks in not getting vaccinated that seemed more dire, such as the risk to my mental health of a prolonged period in lockdown, and the risk that it could take months longer to see family in the UK if I had to wait for my Pfizer vaccination.
My research also revealed that younger people all over the world were choosing to get the AstraZeneca vaccine, in their millions. The solidarity of knowing that I was not alone in making the same choice, and that I might perhaps offer some reassurance to others under 40 considering it, made my decision much easier.
My experience of booking my jab revealed part of the confusion that frontline medical workers are having to navigate to offer both freedom of choice and adequate warning. At one surgery, the doctor commended me on my research and encouraged me to get the AstraZeneca jab. At another I contacted to try and secure an earlier appointment, the GP actively discouraged me from getting AstraZeneca, even going so far as to say that getting my jab now wouldn’t affect the outcome of the lockdown, so why even bother? While I respect that doctor’s medical opinion, I disagree with the logic.
Our rollout has been ranked the slowest of any developed nation in the world. We are 38th out of 38. Dead last, bar none. At the time of writing this piece, fewer than 10 per cent of adults in Australia have been fully vaccinated. If, when given all the facts, clearly and untarnished by overinflated warnings, more consenting adults can access the vaccine more swiftly, it not only saves lives and livelihoods, it will help our country catch up to the rest of the world and retake a place in the global community.
This isn't a risk-free decision. These wonder drugs are incredibly, unthinkably new, and the way they affect the human body, beyond protecting it from SARS-CoV-2 (aka old mate ‘Rona) is largely unknown. I would be lying if I said that I was totally at ease with having such an untried substance in my body for the rest of my life, and I will of course be watchful for signs of blood clots in the coming weeks and months. But how, when and why we choose to get vaccinated is a decision that must be respected. Many people will choose to err on the side of caution and wait for the Pfizer shot, and that is a totally valid choice. But for what it’s worth, I can tell you that getting my first dose – knowing that I had done my part, however small, to unlock the world after so many months of isolation and uncertainty – is the most hopeful and in control I have felt since the pandemic began.