Australians over 30 will be offered a fourth dose of Covid vaccine from Monday, as health authorities battle a winter wave of Omicron cases.
An additional booster shot for people aged over 50 has been “highly recommended” by Australia’s technical advisory group on immunisation, Atagi, but the federal government is still urging millions of eligible Australians who have not yet had their third dose to roll up their sleeves.
Atagi has also called for greater use of face masks, warning more vaccine doses may only play a “limited” role in reducing hospital admissions and case numbers.
“We are in the early stages of a third Omicron wave and our government is absolutely committed to making sure as many people as possible are protected with the vaccine,” the federal health minister, Mark Butler, said.
“Two doses of vaccine is simply not enough.”
News of Atagi’s latest recommendation was reported on Wednesday night but was confirmed on Thursday afternoon after Butler accepted the advisory board’s call.
Previously, fourth shots were only available to people aged over 65, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged over 50, or people with serious immune or health conditions.
From 11 July, the eligibility will be widened to anyone over the age of 30. Atagi’s advice specifically recommends a fourth dose for people aged over 50, and extends eligibility to those 30-49, but the group notes “the benefit for people in this age group is less certain”.
“The interval recommended between a recent Sars-CoV-2 infection or the first booster dose and a winter booster dose is now three months,” Atagi said.
7.4 million Australians will now be eligible for an extra dose, under the revised recommendations.
“My message to everyone living in Australia aged 50 and over is to make sure you have the greatest protection against Covid-19 by having a fourth dose as soon as possible,” Butler said.
“If you are aged 30 to 49 and you want that extra protection, you can choose to get a fourth dose.”
Butler yesterday warned spiking Covid case numbers nationwide are “going to continue to rise for some time yet”, with warnings of a third wave of the Omicron variant about to break. Covid hospital admissions are currently at their highest level since February, with Australia recording more than 39,000 cases and 59 deaths in the last 24 hours.
“Case numbers are rising, hospitalisations are up by several hundred just in the fortnight and most states governments and the federal government are projecting that that’s going to continue to rise for some time yet,” Butler said.
He said 5 million eligible Australians had not yet had their third dose, while 40% of people over 65 had not had the fourth dose they were eligible for. Atagi said current vaccination numbers for third doses were not high enough.
Atagi said in its statement that the fourth dose of vaccine would play “a limited but important role” in reducing case and hospital numbers.
“Atagi advises that other public health and social measures, in addition to vaccination, will have the greatest impact against the Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 surge in infections,” it said.
“This includes increased use of masks and increasing the use of antiviral treatment in people diagnosed with Covid-19, including in people aged 50 years and above.”
Butler said on Wednesday that expanding mask mandates would be “difficult to maintain” but recommended people wear face coverings in crowded or high-risk areas.
“The response to that from chief health officers and leaders of government has generally been not to reintroduce broad-based mask mandates in the third year of a pandemic but to call on people to think very carefully that, when they are indoors and not able to socially distance, to give very strong consideration to wearing a mask,” Butler said on Thursday.
“It will reduce the impact of transmission.”
State governments have ruled out reintroducing the type of mask rules seen during previous stages of the pandemic, but health authorities are encouraging voluntary mask use.
The shadow health minister, Anne Ruston, said the federal opposition backed the change.
The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners vice-president, Dr Bruce Willett, called it a “sensible decision”.
Willett said GPs were already struggling to keep up with demands of administering Covid jabs, flu vaccines and everyday care, and called on the new federal government to provide greater assistance to the sector.
“It would be disappointing to hear reports emerging again of insufficient communication with general practice or of doses not arriving on time or insufficient stock being delivered,” he said.