The worrying trend of Victoria’s ‘under-vaccinated’ filling COVID wards

Elderly and medically vulnerable Victorians who are “under-vaccinated” have become the typical COVID-19 hospital patient, requiring longer stays and multiple courses of treatment.

Doctors and officials are urging the elderly or vulnerable to keep up to date with their booster doses, saying to fall behind is “almost as if you’ve almost had no vaccine at all”.

Raymond Daly was in hospital with COVID in the Northern Hospital this week.Credit:Chris Hopkins

“Many Victorians now have waning immunity because of the time [that has passed] since their last vaccination,” Victoria’s chief health officer Brett Sutton said.

“We strongly encourage anyone who’s due for their next dose to make an appointment with their local GP or pharmacy as soon they can.”

The federal government announced on Wednesday that all adult Australians who had not had a COVID-19 infection or vaccination in the past six months could get an extra booster shot later this month, regardless of how many vaccine doses they’d already had.

Another major wave of deaths from the respiratory illness hit Victoria in January, when COVID-19-related deaths reached an average of 15 per day. Although hospitalisations have now eased from more than 700 in December to less than 150 patients statewide, dozens of deaths are still occurring each week.

Frontline clinicians in Melbourne said many of the older people they are now treating were vaccinated but hadn’t received booster shot recently. Their ailments include pneumonia, delirium, and other serious COVID side effects.

Dr Finn Romanes, the director of the Western Public Health Unit, said his message to the elderly and vulnerable was, “if you haven’t had absolutely the right number of doses to be completely up-to-date, it’s in some cases almost as if you’ve almost had no vaccine at all.

“Being under-vaccinated is the overwhelming common feature in people who need to be admitted to hospital, and they do not do as well when they’re treated,” he added.

Raymond Daly, 86, received his third COVID-19 vaccine more than a year ago, but said he’d “never heard anything more about it after that”. He spent three days in the Northern Hospital in Epping for a nasty first bout of the virus.

Associate Professor Craig Aboltins checks on 86-year-old COVID patient Raymond Daly at the Northern Hospital in Epping.Credit:Chris Hopkins

“I started getting worse and worse. I couldn’t breathe. I had a funny cough. I couldn’t even lay down; that’s how bad it was,” said the retiree from Kilmore.

Associate Professor Craig Aboltins, the head of infectious diseases at Northern Health, said Daly was really sick when he was first admitted, requiring oxygen to breathe and antiviral treatment.

“We were quite worried about him because he has had problems with his kidney and his heart. But he’s going really well,” Aboltins said.

Daly, whose wife is also being treated in the same hospital for COVID, said that people around his age should know that they might need to have another injection, adding “time goes by and you don’t know long ago that things happened”.

Most Australians aged 50 or over should now have received their fourth vaccine. However, close to two in 10 Australians aged 70 or older are yet to receive a fourth dose.

Aboltins said it seemed elderly people and those with medical conditions became more vulnerable to severe infection from COVID once six months had passed since their most recent vaccination.

“We’re seeing more people who are having fevers, and they’re feeling really unwell … so they might become dehydrated, and they might go into kidney failure, they might become very confused,” he said.

“It might lead them to have a fall and to fracture something and hurt themselves very badly, so there’s lots of different ways they can be affected.”

The median age of death from COVID-19 in Australia is about 85 years old, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

The other group that doctors are worried about is those who are medically vulnerable to COVID for reasons other than just their age; it includes transplant recipients and those with blood cancer, asthma, kidney failure, diabetes, significant autoimmune conditions and heart disease.

Romanes urged those vulnerable to COVID to ensure their immunisations were up-to-date, to wear high-quality masks in crowds and to have action plan prepared with their GP in case they get infected.

“Antiviral treatment can save your life if it’s given early after COVID infection … and antivirals work best, as we know, the sooner they’re given, and this should be within days of the onset of the COVID infection,” he said.

Those eligible for antivirals include any Australian aged 70 or over and any adults with certain conditions that compromise their immune systems, such as congenital heart disease or those on chemotherapy.

Romanes said other Victorians should keep in mind that they might not know when they were interacting with someone who was immune suppressed. He advised the public to ensure they had their latest booster shot, to wear a mask inside any time there was a crowd and to keep rooms well ventilated.

Liam Mannix’s Examine newsletter explains and analyses science with a rigorous focus on the evidence. Sign up to get it each week.

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