As New Zealand experiences a fifth wave of Covid-19 infections, most people under the age of 30 still cannot access more than one booster shot.
People aged 16-29 can only get more than one booster if they are severely immunocompromised, pregnant, have an underlying medical condition or complex health needs.
All of these factors would increase the risk of getting severely ill from Covid-19.
People aged 30 and over are allowed to get as many boosters as they want, as long as there is a six-month gap between getting a booster and the last time they got the Covid-19 vaccine or got infected with Covid-19.
If you’re under 30 and are not seen as being at risk of severe illness from Covid-19, you will only have received one booster.
Chances are you got that booster years ago and experts say your immunity against getting infected has gone down.
Working in healthcare without additional boosters
Kaylie Leung, 26, is a community pharmacist who suspects she has long Covid.
She got both of her Covid vaccines and her only booster in 2021.
Kaylie contracted Covid three times – once in 2022 and twice in 2023.
Each time, she says she had a sore throat, a cough, congestion, headaches and a loss of smell and taste.
But it’s the long-term impacts that have affected her the most.
Since getting Covid, Kaylie says she “hasn’t felt quite the same or as healthy” and has had more chest infections, migraines and fatigue than before.
Kaylie says she doesn’t feel protected by the booster she got three years ago and would “one hundred percent without a doubt” take more boosters if they were available to her.
Working in healthcare can severely increase chances of contracting Covid, Kaylie says, who still frequently has Covid-positive patients come directly into the pharmacy.
“It makes me upset because I have to work to provide healthcare to the community whilst facing a barrier to access to healthcare for myself,” she says.
Not being able to get another booster makes Kaylie feel like a danger to herself and those around her who are immunocompromised.
Herd immunity will only be effective if people under 30 can access more covid boosters, she says.
Trying to keep whānau safe
Bella Macdougall, 23, got Covid-19 in late 2022 and unintentionally passed it onto their parents.
While Bella experienced mild symptoms, they said their parents “lost all energy and motivation” for six months after their infection.
Both their parents were very active people who became too fatigued to exercise during that entire period, Bella says.
Bella’s parents get the booster every six months to keep themselves safe and Bella says they want to do the same.
“I don’t want to get Covid again, I don’t want to pass it on again,” they say.
Bella got their covid vaccines in 2021 and their booster in 2022.
“I haven’t had anything since, which feels weird,” they say.
Getting multiple boosters provides ‘peace of mind’
Kate Witt, 28, has had multiple boosters because she has Type 1 diabetes.
Type 1 diabetes is an auto-immune condition that increases her chances of getting sick from Covid-19.
Kate’s body cannot produce enough insulin to keep her blood glucose levels normal so she has to pump insulin into herself every day to stay healthy.
Her blood sugar spiked both times she caught Covid.
“Post-Covid I found I needed a lot more insulin to control my blood sugar … that was a longer term impact that outlasted the 10 day infection period,” she says.
Kate says her symptoms during the Covid infection period were mild and she has no idea how bad it could have been if she wasn’t eligible for boosters.
Kate says having access to multiple boosters gives her “peace of mind”, especially having had the Omicron booster in 2023.
More boosters should be offered to everyone because we don’t yet know what Covid can do to people in the long term, she says.
“Even people who don’t have an underlying condition … they’re getting long Covid and respiratory issues they’ve never had before.”
Kate says it’s interesting that New Zealand used to be “so cautious” about Covid but “things have really shifted from that team of five million” narrative.
Costs versus benefits of under-30s getting boosters
For people who got their last booster two years ago, immunity against getting infected with Covid-19 will have faded, Covid-19 expert Michael Plank says.
“But importantly, [their] protection against getting severely ill remains strong.”
Plank is a Mathematics and Statistics professor at the University of Canterbury whose mathematical modelling of Covid-19 has supported the Government’s pandemic response since 2020.
Plank says most under 30s will have caught Covid at least once since their last booster.
“That prior infection adds to the protection they have against getting sick with the virus again in future,” he says.
Plank says vaccines have a financial cost and while side-effects are very rare, they do happen occasionally.
“For older people, the benefits likely outweigh the costs because the risk of serious illness is much higher,” he says.
“But for young, healthy people, the benefits are smaller because the risk is already low – so the cost-benefit equation is more evenly balanced.”
Pharmac is responsible for vaccine funding and eligibility
Health Minister Shane Reti said the funding for Covid-19 vaccines and booster shots is coming to an end on June 30 2024 and has not yet confirmed if it will be renewed.
Pharmac says it is responsible for decisions on funding and eligibility for all publicly funded medicines, including Covid vaccines.
Pharmac does not have any current plans to make more boosters available to under 30s.
“If we proposed changes [to eligibility for vaccines] in the future, we would publicly consult on this,” Pharmac acting director of pharmaceuticals Adrienne Martin says.
“Most people aged 16-29 who are not considered to be at high risk of severe illness due to Covid”, Te Whatu Ora Director of Prevention Alana Ewe-Snow says.
Ewe-Snow says Te Whatu Ora currently uses the Pfizer BA.4/5 bivalent vaccine or the Novavax Covid 19 vaccine, and that there is sufficient stock for those who are eligible and wish to have a booster.
Pharmac has signalled an updated vaccine will be made available in time for the winter season to help protect people from new variants, Ewe-Snow says.
Fifth wave of Covid-19 may be slowing down
Health Minister Shane Reti says: “Looking at Covid case numbers and hospitalisations during the holiday break, there appears to have been a slowing, although wastewater readings are still reasonably high.”
While that may mean numbers from this fifth wave are plateauing, it’s still important to be mindful of the ongoing potential impact of Covid outbreaks, Reti says.
“I have asked officials for ongoing planning and advice around the availability of RAT testing, vaccinations and boosters so New Zealand remains prepared for any future waves.”
The Ministry of Health says it is reviewing their approach to managing Covid-19, including vaccination and other measures.
Finding a way to get the booster
Bella is determined to get the latest Covid booster.
After speaking with their local pharmacy, Bella was told they had plenty of boosters and could give Bella one if Bella’s GP prescribed it.
“It used to make me anxious to leave the house … it’s more reassuring to know you’re covered.”
While the booster currently does not cost money, booking a doctor’s appointment does.
“It’s kind of shitty but I’m working and I have the money to stretch for [the appointment] because it’s for my health,” they say.
Bella says it makes them upset that people under 30 who cannot afford a doctor’s appointment could not access another booster.