Pregnant women are being denied access to Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines, despite being in a priority group and eligible under phase 1b of the vaccine rollout.
Women who contract COVID-19 when pregnant have an increased risk of severe illness, and in June health authorities recommended they be offered the Pfizer vaccine.
In late July, the federal government sent doctors a document outlining that pregnant women were “a priority” and “immediately eligible” for a Pfizer vaccine.
But the change was not formally announced by the government and instead was made public when health officials were questioned during a parliamentary hearing.
Eligibility checker yet to update
Australians have been told to book their COVID-19 vaccine appointment by first completing the national eligibility checker online, but the checker still does not include a question on pregnancy.
The ABC has used the checker and confirmed there is not a question relating to pregnancy.
ABC News: Jake Evans / Pexels
The omission means any woman under 40 who completes the questionnaire is told they are not eligible for Pfizer doses.
On July 27, a Department of Health spokesperson told the ABC the form would be updated to reflect the new advice.
“The Australian Government is working to update the Eligibility Checker as soon as possible, so that it reflects eligibility for pregnant women, and the appropriate clinical options for this group,” the statement said at the time.
“Until that time, any pregnant women seeking vaccination should call the National Coronavirus Hotline to find relevant clinics.”
More than a week later, that change has not been made.
It means that a fortnight after pregnant women were placed in phase 1b of the vaccine rollout, they are still not able to book an appointment for a Pfizer shot through the eligibility checker.
ABC News: Jake Evans / Pexels
Pregnant women ‘calling and begging’
Amelia, who is five and a half months’ pregnant, followed the health department advice and called the National COVID-19 hotline only to find the call centre did not take bookings.
The 30-year-old was told to keep checking the website and was reassured it would soon be changed.
“They said to just keep going on it every day until it’s updated, so that was pointless,” she said.
Amelia then called two local GP clinics in the New South Wales Southern Highlands region where she lives.
One would not accept her because she could not complete the eligibility checker online, and the other did not have an appointment until close to her due date.
“To just keep being told you are ineligible or that you won’t be able to get it for three months, it’s just quite frustrating really — I just find it ridiculous,” she said.
By chance, a colleague of her husband learned a GP clinic an hour’s drive away was due to receive Pfizer doses in September, so she called and was booked in.
“Calling and just begging to be vaccinated seemed to be what worked, which is ridiculous,” she said.
“I’ve just been lucky enough to have heard that info … not everyone is that lucky.”
Amelia is not alone.
The ABC has spoken to other women who have struggled to get an appointment, and found they were only able to get a booking after ringing around several GP clinics.
In one case, a mother asked the ABC for the official health advice so she could show a GP clinic after staff told her they were not aware of the new directive.
She has since booked an appointment.
Ready and willing but no luck
Laura, who did not want her real name published, is a registered nurse and midwife who works at one of Melbourne’s largest tertiary hospitals.
As an essential healthcare worker, she received her first AstraZeneca dose earlier this year, and later fell pregnant.
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At that stage, the medical advice on vaccines was not clear and Laura’s doctor encouraged her to wait because of serious complications she faced during her last pregnancy.
As soon as the health advice recommended the Pfizer vaccine for pregnant women, she called her GP, but she was told they had no supply and did not know when the next batch would come in.
“It’s like this double-edged sword,” she said.
“It’s definitely on my mind and it contributes to a lot of anxiety, the idea of going into a large tertiary hospital and not having the protection that is required,” Laura said.
With Laura’s GP not able to help, she called the Victorian health hotline to find another clinic but was told she was not eligible for the Pfizer vaccine.
“They couldn’t actually say what specialist I needed to see. They just said I needed to see a specialist and get them to approve me having one dose of AZ and one dose of Pfizer,” she said.
Laura’s situation is slightly more complicated because at this stage Australians have been told to get either two doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine or two doses of the Pfizer vaccine.
However the official advice from the Health Department states “it is preferred” that pregnant women who receive one dose of AstraZeneca get Pfizer as their second dose.
She has booked in to see her GP and is hopeful they may soon have Pfizer doses at the clinic so she can be fully vaccinated.
Lieutenant General John Frewen, who is in charge of Australia’s vaccine rollout, has said its success relies on “the willingness of the public to get vaccinated”.
However, in the case of pregnant women, it appears willingness is not the issue and it is only because women are refusing to give up that some vaccinations are actually taking place.
Laura said the process had been much harder than expected, and as a healthcare worker she was concerned other people might give up, given the process is so hard.
“I am someone who is so ready, so willing to protect not only myself, my baby and my community and yet this is becoming so difficult,” she said.
“We need to find a way forward where this vaccine is more accessible for those who are really wanting to get it and that’s the way we are going to move through this pandemic.”