Councils in Victoria provide immunisation services to children and adults through community immunisation clinics, workplace visits and the secondary school immunisation program. Our council also provides flu vaccines for staff at schools and other workplaces.
When lockdowns and restrictions commenced in early 2020, we needed to find ways to continue our community and school immunisation program while ensuring we minimised the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
Under the stage 3 restrictions which were put in place in March 2020, immunisation was classified as medical care. This meant the school and community immunisation program could continue, with a few changes.
We introduced new clinic rules to reduce the spread of infection. This included reducing the number of people allowed in venues at any given time, physical distancing, mask wearing, and regular cleaning of surfaces. We booked larger venues and rolled out messaging to remind the community how important it was to continue having immunisations on time.
To reduce the possibility of a ‘twindemic’—influenza and SARS-CoV-2 (COVID) circulating together—we emphasised our workplace flu vaccine program. A few workplaces cancelled our scheduled visits, but others staggered times for staff to come in so they could have their vaccines. Schools used large gyms and outdoor areas. There was a high turnout, and it was great to see the reaction of staff finally catching up with each other after more than two months of working from home.
As the pandemic set in, restrictions intensified. When it was time for us to begin our school vaccination program for the year, school students were still learning remotely.
At this time, Year 7 students were eligible for two doses of the HPV (Gardasil9) vaccine given at least six months apart, as well as their booster tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis vaccine. Year 10 students were eligible for the meningococcal ACWY vaccine and visit dates had been scheduled earlier in the year.
To ensure the program went ahead, we contacted principals stressing the importance of these vaccinations and asking that our team be able to continue with the scheduled dates. We also stressed that this visit could be a positive mental health activity, as students had not seen each other face to face for many months.
Most schools came on board, and we were able to conduct the school visits in a safe, socially distanced way. It was fabulous to see the students so excited to get their vaccines—but we knew the real reason was seeing their friends!
We continued our community clinics too. Surprisingly, children who had seen only their parents and siblings for months because of the restrictions were fascinated when they met our immunisation staff and other children. Initially, we thought some children might be frightened by our masks, but they didn’t seem bothered at all.
These clinics also gave us the opportunity to see how parents and children were coping. It became very clear to us that the mental health impact of lockdowns and restrictions was a major issue, particularly when playgrounds were off limits. Listening to a mother talk about home-schooling a six-year-old while working from home, and then trying to explain to her four-year-old autistic child why he was not allowed on the swings, was heartrending.
As the months went on, we were heartened to see childhood vaccination rates being maintained and proud of the way we were able to keep our vital immunisation program operating. But our concerns about the mental health impacts of lockdowns, restrictions and school closures remained, and we would like to see a formal assessment of this approach before Australia ever uses it again.