Ashley Bloomfield’s expectations for the vaccination rollout have been exceeded. But when it comes to equitable delivery for Māori, he told political editor Jo Moir it’s a journey the Ministry of Health is still on.

Māori rates of infection for Covid are the highest in the country and while overall cases have dropped in the last week, hospitalisations have increased for Māori.

Considerable work has been underway this year to improve both first and second dose vaccination rates, particularly for Māori, while also encouraging the booster campaign and paediatric vaccines.

While 72.7 percent of all ethnicities have been boosted to date, just 58.3 percent of eligible Māori and 59.4 percent of eligible Pacific people have taken up the third dose.

The story is similar for five to 11-year olds with 53.8 percent of all ethnicities having received a first dose compared with just 34.7 percent of Māori and 46.8 percent of Pacific people.

The issue of equity, particularly between Māori and non-Māori, is something the Director-General of Health told Newsroom he has been interested in his entire career.

As for whether he’s comfortable with the level of equity that has been met during the Covid pandemic, Bloomfield said it was an “ongoing effort’’.

“What I would say is the delivery of vaccination to adults, for all our groups, has been as high as I might have aspired to but certainly higher than I expected.’’

In January, 70 percent of parents surveyed, across all ethnicities, said they intended to get their five to 11-years olds vaccinated.

“We are still not there and it’s much lower for Māori,’’ Bloomfield said.

While Māori parents have indicated they want more time to get further assurances around the safety of the paediatric vaccine, it has at least set a goal of what’s possible, he said.

Vaccine hesitancy has been an ongoing barrier to try and break through, particularly for Māori, and Bloomfield said information has been sought right from the beginning of the rollout to help overcome it.

“I think we’ve turned around what might have been vaccine hesitancy into a very high level of vaccine acceptance.” – Doctor Ashley Bloomfield

He wouldn’t say whether vaccine hesitancy had led to a vacuum for misinformation and disinformation to seep into vulnerable communities, but did acknowledge misinformation had been an issue right from the start.

On the whole, Bloomfield says New Zealand’s vaccination rates across all groups are something to be very proud of.

“I think we’ve been incredibly successful with our programme here, across the population groups we’ve got rates that are the highest in the world.

“Even though we had to counter, overcome and work through with whānau and communities that misinformation and some very sophisticated efforts by those anti-vaccination groups to try and stop people getting vaccinated.

“I think we’ve turned around what might have been vaccine hesitancy into a very high level of vaccine acceptance,” he told Newsroom.

On Thursday, Bloomfield and his deputy in charge of Māori health, John Whaanga, shone the light on Māori vaccination, as work continues to try to improve the ongoing lag.

Whaanga said a number of clinics have been operating in areas where vaccination is behind or those living there have found it difficult to get access.

He said that isn’t specific to rural areas, and there are a number of urban communities that have also been targeted.

Clinics have been operating at marae in Tairāwhiti, the Lakes District and across Bay of Plenty.

And in addition, Māori and iwi leader health providers have been teaming up with their local district health board to hold sprint events where particular communities are targeted en masse from one week to the next.

“What I would say is the delivery of vaccination to adults, for all our groups, has been as high as I might have aspired to but certainly higher than I expected.’’ – Doctor Ashley Bloomfield

Whaanga said testing is also critical at this time as cases continue to peak outside of Auckland.

A network of 29 Māori-led providers have been established and nearly six million rapid antigen tests have been delivered. They’ve gone on to deliver those tests to more than 1000 community partners.

Equity continues to be a focus in the care in the community programmes operating during the Omicron wave and $27 million of funding will go out to providers next month as part of a Māori/Pacific response package.

Whaanga says the support and funding being pumped into Māori health providers at the moment isn’t new, and is the third strategy the ministry has overseen.

“We had an initial one in 2020, it was revised in 2021, and revised again late last year. We might have not done as well advertising it so people knew it was in place … but the current plan isn’t a recent creation – it builds on work in the last two years,’’ he said.

Equitable delivery for Māori, not only for Covid but across the board, is an ongoing challenge, Whaanga told Newsroom.

“There are still pockets of the country where we have to do better to improve access to vaccinations and covid services.”

But the number of mobile services available for both testing and vaccination compared to two years ago is just one example of how far some aspects of the rollout programme have come, Whaanga said.

Jo Moir is Newsroom's political editor.

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