Published Monday 12 Oct 2020

School immunisation team on track amongst COVID-19 school closures.

Every year the Child Health, School Based Immunisation team at Regional Public Health (RPH) set about the considerable task of immunising 7500 children in years 7 and 8 (ages 10 to 12) in 113 schools across Wellington, Hutt Valley, Porirua and Kāpiti. The team deliver the Boostrix and HPV vaccines to these students.

The Boostrix vaccine, which protects against tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis (whooping cough), is delivered to students in year 7. While the HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccine, protects against HPV infection, which if left undetected can lead to cancer. This vaccine is delivered in two separate doses to students in year 8.

For Maureen Stringer, Child Health Immunisations team leader, 2020 has seen her team lose eight available weeks to administer immunisations due to COVID-19, adding extra pressure to get immunisations completed before schools finish for the year.

“As soon as there were confirmed cases of COVID-19 in New Zealand, we had a number of schools contacting us saying, ‘put the immunisations for our school on hold, we don’t want any external visitors at the moment.’ We could understand why they wanted to take every precaution to keep their tamariki safe,” Maureen said.

By late March, under alert level 4 lockdown, all schools closed and the school immunisation programme went on hold. The immunisation team were redeployed within RPH as part of the pandemic response, which included completing daily monitoring of COVID-19 cases and assisting the wider team with contact tracing.

On the other side of the COVID-19 response, the team faced condensing the school immunisation programme into a much shorter timeframe. It was vital that all HPV round one immunisations were completed by the middle of the year, to allow for a minimum of 22 weeks before round two can be administered.*

Maureen’s “D-Day whiteboard” – the whiteboard used when planning school immunisation visits – suffered through markers and erasers going into overdrive as a number of quick revisions to schedules were made. With great working relationships already established with schools and flexibility shown from both sides, new schedules were completed. “Our team of 5.2 FTE staff wasn’t going to get through the workload. Luckily we’re a collaborative bunch here at RPH so we called on support from the wider team of public health nurses to help us out,” said Maureen.

From there, round one of the HPV vaccine was delivered to all schools. “The team are now working hard to try to deliver HPV round two, on time, by the end of the year,” said Maureen.

“The team have continued to go above and beyond, during really challenging times, to ensure that kids get immunised. I have a wonderful team and I am immensely proud how they have risen to the challenges that have been thrown our way this year,” she said.

*In 2020, due to COVID-19, the Ministry of Health made a dispensation to allow a minimum of 22 weeks before HPV round two can be administered. Typically the requirement is to allow for a minimum of 26 weeks.