Disabled man unable to get Covid booster after Australian vaccine contractor prioritises aged care

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

Man told wait for Covid booster will be ‘another month or two’ as NDIS participant vaccine rates remain lower than general population


Christine Walker has seen the politicians on her television continually repeating the same message.

“They’re … saying, ‘Go and get vaccinated. Get your children vaccinated,’” says Walker. “They’re telling us all to go and do it … What are they doing to make it easier for the most vulnerable?”

Walker, 56, is at a loss. Her 21-year-old son, who Guardian Australia has chosen not to name for privacy reasons, has a rare genetic mutation that causes epilepsy, an intellectual disability, autism and a global developmental delay.

He does not leave their family house in Melbourne except to go to the supermarket, which is the one place he feels comfortable.

“At the moment we’re working on getting him to go to his sister’s house,” Walker said. “He becomes overwhelmed, overstimulated, and he goes into a meltdown. It’s too much for him. Eventually, because he can’t cope, he becomes aggressive.”

Related: ‘It’s really scary’: welfare recipients forced to attend in-person appointments despite Omicron surge

In the past he has needed to be hospitalised to get other injections, so the idea that Walker could take him to a vaccination hub or a GP clinic is almost inconceivable.

Last year, she called local GPs, who all said they could not do home visits, before the disability liaison at a Melbourne hospital put her in touch with Aspen Medical, one of the private companies contracted by the federal government to carry out “in reach” vaccinations in the aged care and disability sectors.

But Walker’s experience this time around is eerily similar to the damning finding of the disability royal commission, which said the federal government’s in reach vaccination roll out had “de-prioritised” people with disability in favour of those in aged care.

“Last time around we were able to get a team to come out and do the vaccination at home where he’s obviously more comfortable,” Walker said. “I called [Aspen Medical] again this week, to ask them to do the booster.

“They were really lovely, very nice, but they said they’re trying to do all the nursing homes right now. So they can’t do him for another month or two.”

Experiences like Walker’s may some provide insight into why vaccination rates for national disability insurance scheme participants – some of whom are more susceptible to the virus and were meant to be prioritised for jabs – remain lower than the general population.

In August, Guardian Australia reported the story of a Sydney woman who managed to secure a vaccination appointment for her daughter, who has Down’s syndrome, from a private provider through Twitter.

At the weekend, Guardian Australia revealed leaked data that showed people with intellectual disabilities and autistic people were less likely to be vaccinated than other national disability insurance scheme participants. They are even less likely to be vaccinated than the general population.

And according to figures from last week leaked to Guardian Australia, only 14.8% of all national disability insurance scheme participants have received a booster.

Overall, only 83.8% of NDIS participants have received two doses, compared to 92% of the general population. That’s despite NDIS participants becoming eligible much earlier than most people.

On Tuesday, Labor’s NDIS spokesman, Bill Shorten, said those figures pointed to a “roll call of failure by the Morrison government”.

“In particular, today, I’m calling upon the Morrison government to put from the back of the queue to the front of the queue people living with intellectual disabilities and people diagnosed with autism,” he said.

Walker said she was particularly worried about being unable to get a booster for her son because he was immunocompromised.

“Even a summer cold is enough to lay him out,” she said. “A flu can see him admitted to hospital. Covid would be so much.”

Heather Renton, the chief executive of Syndromes Without a Name, has been supporting Walker to try to find her son a vaccination.

Renton said there was not enough clear information to direct people like Walker about where to go.

“It’s difficult when you’ve got a child who won’t even leave the house, when they’ve got a fear of vaccination,” said Renton.

Related: Vaccine rate for people with disability at about 50% in some regional areas, leaked data reveals

Guardian Australia approached the federal Department of Health and Aspen Medical for comment but did not receive a response by deadline.

The Victorian Department of Health runs an in-home vaccination service for people with disability, via its disability liaison, though its website states the service is “currently not available for third doses”.

The Victorian department of health said it would contact Walker to see what assistance could be provided.

A Victorian government spokesperson added: “While the NDIS and the Covid-19 vaccination program is the responsibility of the commonwealth, our team is supporting clients and carers to determine the best way to get people vaccinated through specialist care at our state-run clinics or our at-home vaccination service.

“We encourage carers or people with mobility issues, a disability or special requirements to consider contacting our disability liaison officers should they need support.”

Walker planned to once again try with local GPs in her suburb of Mernda in Melbourne’s outer northern suburbs, but was dismayed at the process.

“There are advocates in the community doing their best to help,” she said. “I don’t think the people that are supposed to be helping are actually doing that much.

“It shouldn’t be this hard.”

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