Australians with severely compromised immune systems can start receiving a COVID-19 third shot from Monday after advice from the expert panel on vaccinations, the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI).
It comes as new national rules are announced for healthcare workers exposed to COVID. Both announcements come as Australia passed the 80 per cent first dose vaccination mark as well as the 60 per cent full dose milestone.
The expert panel has given the third dose advice for immunocompromised people aged 12 and over after closely monitoring overseas vaccination programs, including those from Israel and the United States.
The Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt says it is group of approximately 500,000 Australians.
"It is about providing additional protection," he said on Friday. "The next stage, the general population stage of the booster program, we are expecting advice from ATAGI before the end of October."
The advice relates to a wide variety of conditions such as people who have cancer or have had an organ transplant or stem cell transplant, people living with HIV, people on medications which suppress the immune system and people born with an immunodeficiency.
Australia's Chief Medical Officer Professor Paul Kelly said the third dose is designed to help the immunocompromised get as close as possible to the immune response protection of the general population.
"So we know that vaccines work by stimulating the immune system to produce antibodies against COVID. It's the same for all vaccines, that is how they work," he said on Friday.
"And unfortunately some people that have immune systems that don't work as well as the general population, those vaccines may not lead to that protection.
"And so the evidence is now clear that people in those categories of immune compromised should receive a third dose, that should happen at a period after the second dose, between two and six months after that time of the second dose."
As to what vaccine to use for the third shot, Professor Kelly advised the preference is to go for a third dose of the two doses first administered.
"So if you've had two Pfizer, the third one would be Pfizer. No one's had two of Moderna yet," he said. "But if Pfizer was not available or unable to be taken, Moderna would be substituted."
"There is flexibility, but the general principle is mRNA vaccine as the third dose."
Professor Kelly said he will be writing to medical practitioners to clarify this position and give further guidance.
Also announced on Monday, there is a nationally agreed statement to guide fully vaccinated frontline healthcare workers so that they will no longer need to self-isolate if they come into contact with a Covid case, also known as furloughing staff.
The new rules, or more precisely guidance, will depend on an outbreak's severity and other conditions.
"It would depend on all of the things we have got used to; wearing of masks, the nature of the interaction between someone who's positive and the healthcare worker, their vaccination status," Professor Kelly said.
"There's a matrix there. Ultimately, it will be a decision of the healthcare setting and their local public health unit to decide on the actual nature of that.
"But it does open up that possibility because of the protection that comes from vaccination and because of the need for us to have our healthcare [workers] working during this period, that's all taken into account. So, it's a very good document that's been agreed by all states and territories and it gives guidance very carefully and clearly to the local public health response."
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