Top 3 Covid vaccine questions – Omicron, vaccines for ages 5-11, and mental health over festive season

Department of Health

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Dr Steph Davis

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G’day everyone, my name is Steph Davis, I’m a Deputy Chief Medical Officer at the Australian Government Department of Health. I’m here today to answer your top 3 questions. Before I go any further, I would just like to extend my acknowledgement of the Traditional Custodians of the land on which I am sitting today, the Ngunnawal people, and I would like to pay my respects to the elders past, present and emerging. I would also like to pay my respects to the Traditional Custodians of the lands on which others are watching the video from, and extent those respects to any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islands people who are watching this video today.

My shout out today is to everyone who has missed their usual preventative health appointments with their general practitioner or the other preventative health things like screening that we should be doing to make sure you get on top of that. A lot of people during the pandemic have not done the usual things they would do, like haven’t had their mammograms, or done their bowel cancer screening, or seen there GP for a regular blood test to pick up things like high cholesterol and diabetes. All of this is preventative health stuff is very important, because if we miss it now, we can run into problems down the track. If you have missed out on doing some of that usual stuff, please make sure you try to make and make an appointment to see your GP, or book in for your mammogram, or if you have got your bowel cancer screening test, well you know what to do with that one. Please do that soon.

My first question today is, is it likely that we will need a completely new vaccine to fight the Omicron variant? This is a bit of a tricky question, I think it is best to just go back a step and think about what we do and don’t know about the Omicron variant at the moment. I think we all know now the Omicron variant was described in late November, probably been around for a couple of months before that. We know that it seems to be very very transmissible, and that it can pass between people very easily. We know that generally so far, it seems to be showing less severe disease, which is really reassuring, but we need to keep a close eye on it to make sure that what we’re seeing is actually correct. We know that it seems to show some level of vaccine escape. What vaccine escape means is that the vaccines don’t seem to be quite as effective against preventing people from catching it, as they are against some of the other variants that have emerged from COVID like Delta. What we don’t really know at the moment though, is that level of vaccine escape. Really importantly we don’t know how effective the vaccine is going to be against preventing severe disease from Omicron. It could be that the vaccines we have got at the moment aren’t very good at preventing you from catching Omicron, but they are very good at preventing severe disease. That is really what we want to prevent isn’t it? We want to prevent you from getting really sick from COVID. That is a really good reason to have your vaccines if you haven’t had them already. The other thing is that we have got to remember there is a lot of Delta around in Australia still. We have still got community transmission of Delta and the majority of COVID cases in Australia at the moment are from the Delta variant. We know that the vaccines are really good at preventing both transmission and severe disease from Delta. So again, really good reason to have your vaccines, if you haven’t had them yet, please make sure you book in for an appointment as soon as you can. If you are due for your booster, that is if you are 6 months down the track from your 2nd vaccine, then please go and make an appointment to get your booster shot.

My 2nd question today is what does it mean to have provisional vaccine approval for people aged 5 to 11 years? The Therapeutic Goods Administration, or the TGA, has recently given provisional approval for the Pfizer vaccine for those aged 5 to 11 years. This provisional approval is based on a really careful review of all the different data around the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine. What that provisional approval means is that they have assessed it to be safe and effective and it’s now legal to supply the vaccine to that age group within Australia. In terms of what that means for the vaccine rollout, that is going to depend on the advice of the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation, or the ATAGI group. What they are going to do is have a look at that data and look at it in the broader scheme of the vaccine rollout and say is it a good idea to include 5 to 11 year olds in the vaccine rollout? They are actively looking at that at the moment and we expect them to provide advice to government in the next sort of few weeks. The other thing about provisional approval is that it is pretty strict, one of the things it is reliant on is the vaccine companies continuing to provide safety and effectiveness data over the coming years, coming months to years. That is really important, so we will be able to keep having that data come in over time.

My 3rd question today, this is a really important one, is I am not feeling quite like myself coming into the festive season. How can I support my mental health? Like I said, this is a really important question. This is because we know that COVID-19 has steamrolled into all of our lives. It has caused differences in the way we socialise, differences in the way we work, and for a lot of us it has caused a profound shift in how we view the world and our level of anxiety and just about our lives in general. I really want to express a strong message to everyone, it’s okay not to be feeling quite like yourself this time of year. The Christmas season is hard on a lot of people and when we have this extra added anxiety of the recent emergence of Omicron, plus all the other stuff which happened over the past 20 months, it’s okay to be feeling not quite like yourself. I really want to tell everyone, just be a bit gentle on yourself okay, don’t give yourself a hard time at the moment. In terms of practical steps, what can you do? We know exercise is really good for mental health. Even just taking a short walk, a couple of times a week, can be really good to help your mood. We know that sometimes avoiding doom scrolling, sometimes avoiding social media, I know a little ironic because I am talking about this on Facebook! But avoiding too much time online can be good for mental health. Try and avoid things that make you feel good in the short term, but don’t make you feel good in the long-term. Things like overindulgence in alcohol, or smoking cigarettes. Try and reach out to friends and family if you can. Sometimes reaching out to other people can also help them to talk about things that are bothering them and can also help yourself. If you think you need to, reach out to other sources as well. There are some really good things like Beyond Blue and the Head to Health website has some really good resources and practical tips, and also there is health professionals, like your GP. They can really help you with your mental health as well. So again, it is okay not to be feeling quite like yourself at the moment. Be gentle on yourself, and the other thing is, remember we have come an awfully long way this year. We have incredibly high vaccination rates and we have got there together as a community I don’t think any of us really enjoyed the lockdown and home schooling and all that kind of thing, but we got there together as a community. Just remember all the things you have achieved this year as well as all the things that are bothering you.

That is my top 3 questions for today, just want to express my profound thanks to my interpreters and to Ramas today. That’s it from me, and I will see you all again soon. Thanks, bye.

Top 3 questions

  1. Is it likely that we will need a completely new vaccine to fight the Omicron variant?
  2. What does it mean to have provisional vaccine approval for people aged 5-11 years
  3. I am not feeling quite like myself coming into the festive season, how can I support my mental health?

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