The two main vaccination centres in an area with one of New Zealand’s lowest jab rates are closed for the holidays to give staff a break.
A booster-seeking resident said closing Rotorua’s central clinic was “ludicrous”, while the local district health board is considering reopening it to meet the demand.
A Māori health expert, however, thought it was necessary to give vaccinators time off.
It comes as the first community exposure of highly infectious Covid-19 variant Omicron was confirmed in Auckland yesterday.
The Rotorua Vaccination Centre closed on Christmas Eve and won’t reopen until January 5. The Te Arawa Covid-19 Response Hub closed on December 16 and will reopen on January 17.
Two chemists have been operating in Rotorua for vaccinations. One can no longer take “walk-ins” and there was a wait at the other. A third is to open today.
Lakes District Health Board and Te Arawa Covid-19 Response Hub spokespeople said the closures were giving staff a break ahead of the rollout of children’s vaccinations – but critics say the decision is puzzling given the push to get New Zealanders vaccinated.
Rotorua is in the Lakes District Health Board, which has the fourth-worst vaccination rate of New Zealand’s 20 district health boards at 92 per cent for first doses and 87 per cent for second doses.
There were 266 people vaccinated at the two chemists in the 24 hours to yesterday afternoon.
The Healthpoint website lists medical centres in Rotorua offering vaccinations but when the Rotorua Daily Post called them, only two said they were doing vaccinations over the holidays, and for only one or two days a week with bookings essential.
The others said they weren’t doing them until mid-January to give their staff time off.
The Lakes DHB’s Taupō vaccination centre is open during the holiday period and so are the Bay of Plenty DHB’s vaccination centres, including two in Tauranga (Tauriko and First Ave) and one each in Kawerau and Whakatāne.
Lakes DHB chief executive Nick Saville-Wood said it was now considering reopening the vaccination centre or helping the chemists.
“Our plans for Christmas were based on volumes we were experiencing and it was felt that the three facilities could reasonably address the volumes. This appears to not have been the case so we are looking at what we can do to either reopen the hub or bolster the resources in each of the current facilities.”
Saville-Wood said the Rotorua centre had been open since March, with the programme initially expected to have wrapped up by December.
“Our nursing and vaccination staff at the Rotorua and Taupō hubs have had a massive year of work and deserve a well-earned break to spend time with their whānau.”
He said staff faced another busy year in 2022 with the rollout of vaccinations for 5- to 11-year-olds while continuing booster shots and first and second doses.
“Staff-wise, we are not as large as our neighbouring DHBs, but Lakes DHB resource nursing and support staff for two vaccination hubs, two testing centres, two hospitals and three managed isolation facilities.”
He said the Taupō immunisation hub was open for drop-ins on non-statutory holiday days as the only vaccinating pharmacy in Taupō had limited availability.
The Rotorua Daily Post approached health board chairman Dr Jim Mather for comment but Saville-Wood responded saying Mather wanted him to respond as he saw it as an operational issue.
Te Arawa Covid-19 Response Hub co-chairman Monty Morrison said the hub opened on September 1 and kaimahi (workers) had been staffing it up to five days a week, many in addition to or alongside their “day jobs”.
The hub closed on December 16, with staff working the Vax Vegas event on December 18.
Morrison said hundreds of people, and dozens of community organisations and Māori health providers, were involved in supporting the hub, delivering nearly 12,000 vaccinations.
“We closed the clinic for this period because our team urgently needed a break over the Christmas period, so they can refresh before scaling up again in January to deliver booster vaccinations and those for tamariki … This is going to require another significant effort and it’s important our kaimahi have had a rest and are ready to go so that we can continue to support our whānau in the months ahead.”
Unichem Rotorua Central Pharmacy owner David Honore was surprised the Rotorua vaccination centre wasn’t open.
“I can’t understand why they would be closed but that is their call. We are coping with it but I question why they have not got a skeleton staff doing it.”
Honore said his staff were coping but they weren’t getting a break.
“As long as people book, we can manage it. We were doing walk-ins but we can’t do that now as there’s too many people.”
Coral Warner said she was due for her booster yesterday and was shocked to find the Rotorua Central centre closed.
“I couldn’t believe it that it was closed. They are screaming out for people to get vaxxed and get boosters and then they close the bloody place. What is that all about? I just don’t get it.”
Warner said she was able to get her vaccine at the pharmacy shortly before they stopped taking “walk-ins”.
“There were a lot of people there who had been down at the hub and we were all saying ‘this is just ludicrous’,” Warner said.
Long-time Rotorua journalist Jill Nicholas was also due for a booster yesterday and had previously booked her appointment at Central Pharmacy.
She said she was shocked to learn the hub was closed when vaccine-seekers started arriving at the pharmacy.
“They were turning people away, telling them to try again tomorrow.
“It seems a bit strange when we are all being urged to vax up … I realise staff definitely deserve a break but surely a skeleton staff could have been maintained, especially with active cases growing in the Rotorua community and two hospitalisations.”
She praised Central Pharmacy staff for remaining “cool and calm” while being “run off their feet”.
Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins was unavailable for comment. Duty Minister David Parker said staffing was for the Ministry of Health and the district health board to decide as there were services open.
Lakes DHB board member Lyall Thurston said he believed the vaccination centres should be open 24/7.
“We have got to really lift vaccination for Māori in particular. The goal is to have everyone vaccinated.
“We’re in a pandemic.”
In his view, it was not helpful to the vaccination drive to have the hubs closed through the “incredibly busy” holiday period.
“This is when those conversations happen. People who are straggling or a bit ambivalent may be persuaded.”
But Massey University Māori health expert Chris Cunningham said he believed the break was necessary, “otherwise they’re going to run out of steam when it comes to the kids [and boosters]”.
“The whole system is just completely fatigued [and] we’ve got to do this whole jolly thing again.”
National Party Covid-19 response spokesman Chris Bishop said he found it concerning vaccination hubs were closed in an area where vaccination rates were lower than other places.
He said he appreciated people needed a break but there needed to be “a bit of forward planning” from the Government.
“The messaging has been two shots for summer.”
The Ministry of Health was also approached for comment.
Open for vaccinations
Unichem Rotorua Central Pharmacy
Unichem The Mall Pharmacy
Ōwhata Pharmacy Thursday and Friday this week only
Te Runanga o Ngāti Pikiao General Practice on Wednesdays only
Ngongotahā Medical Centre open but booked until January 14
Closed for vaccinations
Rotorua Vaccination Centre, Rotorua Central closed until January 5
Te Arawa Covid-19 Response Hub closed until January 17
Most medical centres aren’t doing vaccinations during holiday periods but ring to check
Vaccination rates by DHB with active cases as of December 27
Bay of Plenty DHB: First doses 93 per cent; second doses 89 per cent
Lakes DHB: First doses 92 per cent; second doses 87 per cent
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