Thu, August 11, 2022


In Sydneys sprint against a delta outbreak, outcome rests on the young

SYDNEY -- Australias race to vaccinate is finally ramping up, but Michal Aleksandroff isnt sure he wants to participate.

The bricklayer lives in the epicenter of Sydney's growing coronavirus outbreak and, at age 34, is exactly the type of person officials are frantically trying to inoculate. In the past week, they have increased vaccination sites and slashed age restrictions to try to get ahead of the rampaging delta variant.

Aleksandroff is torn.

His vaccinated mother urges him to get the shot. His girlfriend and buddies say the same.

But his brother and cousin believe vaccines are the problem, not the solution, he said. And Aleksandroff isn't convinced he needs a jab.

"I'm questioning myself now, should I go get it?" he said. "I don't know what I'm going to do."

The decision he and thousands of others under 40 make in the weeks to come will shape the course of Sydney's outbreak, and with it Australia's approach to the pandemic.

With new cases averaging about 200 a day in the past week, New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian recently announced Sydney would remain in lockdown until at least Aug. 28. Should cases not fall, Australia's 18-month pursuit of "covid zero" could come to an end.

Young, essential employees are driving the outbreak by catching the virus at work and bringing it home to their relatives, officials say. Younger Australians are also increasingly among the severely sick.

For months, Australia's sluggish vaccine rollout has meant most young people were unable to get inoculated. But that changed last week, with Berejiklian enabling anyone 18 or older to get doses of the coronavirus vaccine developed by Oxford University and British-Swedish firm AstraZeneca at pharmacies or vaccination hubs.

"Please come forward for vaccination," Berejiklian said Thursday. "It is our way forward out of this."

The sense of urgency appears to have spread to Prime Minister Scott Morrison who, after saying for months that the country's vaccination program wasn't a race, compared it with the Olympics on Wednesday.

"We go for gold on getting those vaccination rates where we need to go," he said. "And we make a gold medal run all the way to the end of this year."

But the race to vaccinate younger Australians has been hobbled by a late start and mixed messaging. About 19% of eligible Australians are fully vaccinated. For those aged 16 to 39, the figure is around 10%.

AstraZeneca was supposed to be the backbone of Australia's vaccination campaign. But concerns over rare blood clots, particularly among young people, led the federal government to restrict its use to people over 50, and then to those over 60. Morrison announced AstraZeneca would be phased out in favor of a vaccine jointly developed by U.S. firm Pfizer and German company BioNTech. In May, his health minister appeared to suggest people could simply wait a few months for more doses of Pfizer-BioNTech to arrive.

As Sydney's outbreak swelled and seeded clusters in other states, however, Morrison suddenly switched course, announcing in late June that adults who wanted the AstraZeneca shot could get it after talking to their doctor.

"We'll look back at this time and just be blown away by what a wrong call that was," epidemiologist Greg Dore said of the initial reluctance to encourage broader use of AstraZeneca. "We could have been so much further along the pathway. The urgency was always there, winter was coming, new variants were arriving, but there was too much complacency, and we're now paying the price for that."

The back-and-forth has given rise to what Dore calls the "Waiting for Pfizer Brigade."

Among their ranks is Shawn Lu, a 26-year-old environmental consultant who lives in the Fairfield local government area, a region of southwestern Sydney hit hard by the outbreak. Most of his older relatives have gotten AstraZeneca, and Lu was planning to, as well. But then came tabloid headlines like "Vax Death" and the over-60 age restriction. By the time the age limit was lifted, Lu had made up his mind to wait for Pfizer-BioNTech.

Lu knows the chances of dying from the side effects of an AstraZeneca shot are less than one in a million. But being stuck inside and deluged with covid news has made him hyper conscious of even minuscule risks.

"There is always that little voice in your head," he said. "What if it's me who dies from the vaccine?"

Lu is hoping to get a first shot of the two-dose Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine later this month, as the supply ramps up.

Federal and state officials argue the outbreak has tipped the scales in favor of young Australians getting the AstraZeneca vaccine, and statistics suggest that is starting to happen. In New South Wales, the number of AstraZeneca doses doled out to people under 40 more than tripled last week.

"This outbreak will be the point at which everyone started to take [vaccination] absolutely seriously," said Dore, an infectious diseases expert with the Kirby Institute.

Fairfield city councilor Sera Yilmaz said she had seen a surge in the number of people in their 20s and 30s signing up to get AstraZeneca.

"People are saying, 'You know what, I'm just going to get it,'" said the 33-year-old, who is planning to get Pfizer-BioNTech. "They feel the government won't let us out of this [lockdown] until we get the vaccine."

Aleksandroff lives in a house divided. His mother works in a nursing home and was among the first to get Pfizer-BioNTech. But his younger brother believes in anti-vaccine conspiracy theories and recently refused to get tested when feeling sick, Aleksandroff says.

His own thoughts lie somewhere in between. Aleksandroff dismisses recent anti-vaccine protests as "selfish." But he also finds it "weird" officials are now pushing a vaccine they prohibited just a few weeks ago.

"I'm healthy, I'm 34, I exercise, I work a physical job, I feel like I don't need it," he says, putting the likelihood that he will get the shot at 50%.

(Of the 55 covid patients in Sydney's intensive care units on Sunday, seven were in their 20s and five were in their 30s, officials said. None were fully vaccinated.)

For months, Basim Shamaon has seen scary AstraZeneca headlines ripple through the Chaldean and Assyrian communities in Fairfield. He, too, was concerned, but the outbreak had convinced the 29-year-old to take whatever dose he could get.

"There is a point when we have to take the vaccine, to save our neighborhood, our family, our loved ones," he said last week.

When Shamaon arrived at a local vaccination center on Saturday, however, he was handed a brochure for AstraZeneca. A nurse said they were out of Pfizer-BioNTech doses.

As he stared at a consent form, he recalled a doctor warning him a few years ago that he had a weak heart. Then, he walked out.

"I was so tempted to say yes to AstraZeneca," he said afterward. "But I'll wait for Pfizer."

Published : August 03, 2021

By : The Washington Post · Michael E. Miller