Digital COVID-19 vaccine exemptions available next month, but ‘almost no one’ eligible

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Digital COVID-19 vaccine exemption certificates will be available for those with a legitimate medical reason from next month, the federal government has revealed.

But the national body for GPs has flagged concerns about patients demanding vaccine exemptions when they don’t qualify, amid ever expanding vaccine mandates for workplaces and flagged “no vax, no entry” policies.

Digital COVID-19 vaccine certificates will be incorporated into the NSW and Victorian check-in apps.Credit:Joe Armao

Legitimate exemptions for COVID-19 vaccines can only be assessed and lodged to the Australian Immunisation Register by GPs, paediatricians and infectious disease physicians on behalf of a patient. Patients can’t access the register themselves.

The federal Department of Health said digital exemption certificates would be available through Services Australia next month as vaccine certificates are already.

Both NSW and Victoria have said Services Australia vaccine data will be added to state check-in apps, with a two-week pilot program starting on October 6 in NSW and similar trials flagged for regional Victoria.

However, Karen Price, president of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, said many people with chronic illnesses or auto-immune conditions still incorrectly believed they couldn’t get a COVID-19 vaccine.

“There’s some reverse logic going on that needs to be clarified,” she said. “They actually should be at the top of the list to get the vaccine because they’re much more at risk of serious COVID outcomes.”

Common conditions people falsely believed exempted them from COVID-19 vaccines were blood clotting disorders, former stroke and heart attack experience and various allergies.

She was concerned GPs and receptionists would experience more abuse as the cities opened up.

“[Unvaccinated] people are going to be not allowed into various areas of the community, and so there’s going to be a lot at stake here,” she said. “I don’t want to see our staff, again, go through harassment.”

Following the news last week that vaccines would become mandatory for construction workers in Victoria, GP Andrew McDonald said his practice in Donvale in Melbourne’s east began getting calls from people asking for vaccine exemptions.

Dr McDonald said there had been around a dozen so far. Some were aggressive and cited misinformation. He said he suspected they were ringing around different GPs trying to get a different result.

“Often they start by saying they have been doing a lot of research on the vaccines and they think they are not safe. They say things like they’re experimental. They have told us for religious reasons they can’t have it,” he said.

However, Dr McDonald also said the vast majority of tradespeople who had come forward to be vaccinated recently were polite and happy to be vaccinated.

“We’ve had a few young guys in their 20s happy to just come along and have whatever vaccine because their boss said they are going to have it to work… they just came in and pulled up their sleeves.”

The only people who cannot get any of the three coronavirus vaccines available are those who are allergic to both polyethylene glycol (PEG), which is in the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, and polysorbate 80, which is in the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Professor Kristine McCartney, Director of the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance, said that translated to “almost no one”, and those who were allergic to those ingredients would likely already be well aware of it.

“[PEG or polysorbate 80] are residual agents or they’re part of what is used to stabilise the vaccine,” Professor McCartney said.

“These are very, very common products that are in everyday products we use all the time [such as cosmetics and bathroom products].”

She said severe allergic reactions were rare – about one in 100,000 people – were treatable and most would be detected in the 15 minutes after a shot. Those rare few who have an allergic reaction could in most cases get a different brand of vaccine safely afterwards.

Even those undergoing serious medication procedures such as surgery, an organ or bone marrow transplant or chemotherapy for cancer can receive a COVID-19 vaccine, Dr Price said.

“For those going through active treatment it’s really just the timing,” she said.

Professor McCartney urged anyone who was yet to get vaccinated due to concerns over their prior medical conditions to speak with their doctor.

“Immunocompromised people stand to lose a lot having COVID-19 – them and their loved ones,” she said. “I think COVID won’t be rare. The virus will be in society and we will all meet it. We want to meet it with protection on board.”

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