Fears as third wave looms but too few are vaccinated

Anxiety growing over glacial pace of vaccine programme

21 March 2021 - 00:00 By Nick Wilson, Hilary Joffe and Claire Keeton
Deputy health minister Joe Phaahla admitted the health department would not meet its target of vaccinating 1.5-million health-care workers.
Deputy health minister Joe Phaahla admitted the health department would not meet its target of vaccinating 1.5-million health-care workers.
Image: ALON SKUY

Frustrations are growing that SA is heading for a third wave of Covid-19 without a solid rollout plan and with the majority of health-care workers not yet vaccinated.

In a briefing last week, deputy health minister Joe Phaahla admitted the department would not meet its target of vaccinating 1.5-million health-care workers. Instead, he said it was likely that 700,000 would be vaccinated by the end of April.

However, professor Glenda Gray, a co-lead investigator for the Johnson & Johnson (J&J) vaccine trial, predicted this week that 500,000 health-care workers would be vaccinated by the end of April - if there were no delays.

With fears of a third wave likely to erupt at the end of April, this means most of SA's health-care workers will still be unprotected.

Officials and experts have warned that the Easter holidays in two weeks' time - and the associated religious gatherings - could precipitate the third wave, and are urging people to wear masks and observe the other anti-infection protocols.

On Friday, the health department reported 311 Covid-related deaths in 24 hours, by far the highest daily figure in many weeks. But it attributed the higher number to data verification processes.

The department said active infections stood at 22,192, down slightly from the previous day but still higher than the 21,405 recorded on Tuesday.

Martin Kingston, chair of the steering committee at Business for SA, said it was understandable that frustration over the slow pace of vaccination was growing.

"The biggest single health and economic intervention that there is available currently to us is the vaccine," he said.

South Africans needed to put their individual and collective shoulders to the wheel to make sure that vaccines were secured and that the country had the capacity to administer them.

Kingston said that though the vaccine rollout had been slow until now, it should speed up once commercially procured vaccines from J&J and Pfizer started arriving, along with those contracted under the Covax and African Union programmes.

The biggest single health and economic intervention that there is available currently to us is the vaccine
Martin Kingston, chair of the steering committee at Business for SA

"We think that we can ramp up as a country to 250,000 vaccinations a day over a three- or four-month period, which is what we need to get to, but you have to have the vaccines themselves.

"At the moment we are on about 10,000 vaccinations a day but that is only because we are getting them in batches of 80,000 from J&J every 10 days or so."

He said SA had enough vaccines on order to inoculate all adults but needed to make use of all possible public and private sector vaccination sites, such as hospitals, doctors' rooms and the clinics operated by the mining sector. "We are co-operating fully with government to optimise the acquisition programme."

Discovery Health CEO Ryan Noach said the medical aid believed many deaths could be avoided "if we are able to vaccinate all high-risk groups, including people over the age of 60 and people living with multiple co-morbidities, by midwinter, with the balance of the population being vaccinated before the end of the year".

"We are obviously very eager to achieve this. Given that a major challenge is the global shortage of vaccines in the second quarter of the year, we are working our hardest to support government's efforts by engaging directly with global manufacturers to free up stock that can be centrally procured," Noach said.

"We're also working closely with the department of health and National Treasury to ensure that funding is available and ready to be deployed for procurement and administration of vaccines."

Noach said manufacturers globally were not yet allowing private players to procure vaccines directly.

"It is clear vaccine procurement and the rollout at this stage has to be led by the state, with strong support and collaboration from the private sector - we must therefore do everything we can to assist and ensure a successful and rapid rollout."

He said that to support its members and clients, Discovery had "taken steps such as stratifying our members according to their risk levels, ensuring that there are sufficient sites and capacity in all parts of the country, and setting aside the necessary funding, so that we can execute at speed as soon as stock becomes available".


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