Targeted vaccination approaches needed in the face of Omicron variant

As New Zealand faces community transmission of the Omicron variant, too many people who experience mental distress or addictions remain unvaccinated.

The total New Zealand vaccination rates are now very high, with over one million people boosted and 93% of the eligible population double vaccinated.

“We must be vigilant, nevertheless, to ensure that no one is left behind, now that Omicron is in the community. There is evidence that some people who use specialist mental health services and addiction services are being left behind,” says Hayden Wano, Chair of the Mental Health and Wellbeing Commission.

January figures from the Ministry of Health indicate that mental health service users have full vaccination rates that are 9% lower than the general population, and rates amongst addiction service users are 19% lower than the general population.

The figures for Māori are also concerning. Māori mental health service users have vaccination rates 17% lower than the general population, and Māori addiction service user rates are 26% lower than the general population.

"Māori providers and community-led initiatives have been hugely successful in reaching communities that health providers couldn't. However, the job is not yet done.

“There will be a number of reasons for these lower rates, but we are of the view that access is a particular concern, combined with a level of hesitancy and lack of trust. We have no reason to believe that a significant portion are vaccine resistant as such.

“We know that populations such as Māori and Pacific peoples regularly experience exclusion and racism. We know that these are factors in their mental health challenges. Vaccination is a wellbeing issue, and if these groups are again finding themselves outside the mainstream on vaccination and more vulnerable to COVID-19, then this is going to reduce their sense of wellbeing and their mental health.

“As we move into the next stage of the vaccination challenge, we will continue to monitor the data and the uptake of the booster amongst these important groups, as well as ensuring that they are connected with and brought into vaccination rollout. These groups require active engagement and, in many cases, the best parties to do that are the community-led service providers.

“We cannot speak highly enough about the targeted efforts of Māori and Pacific community providers as well as other service providers and churches, who have contributed to a huge turnaround in rates of vaccination for Māori and Pacific communities. This is the kind of targeted approach that is needed to ensure that people who experience mental distress and those who experience addictions, have equitable and timely access to the vaccination.

“Only then, can we say that Aotearoa has done its best in ensuring that no one is being left behind,” says Wano.