Covid-19 vaccine rollout: the hard part's still to come
While the first week of SA's vaccine rollout has been given a tentative thumbs-up, vaccinations and registrations need to be ramped up quickly, say health experts.
More than 117,000 people got the jab this week, as infections continue to soar. Some were health-care workers who had not been vaccinated during the first phase, but most were people over the age of 60.
About 155 public vaccination sites were operating this week, and 22 private sector sites.
Among some of the challenges were:
• Clinics with no generators, which could not operate during load-shedding;
• Some people having to travel long distances to vaccination sites;
• People arriving at sites without an appointment; and
• Claims that some sickly people in their 80s had not been given appointments, while healthier people in their early 60s had.
Speaking yesterday on the sidelines of a ceremony at Tafelkop in Limpopo, where he handed out 30 title deeds to farmers, President Cyril Ramaphosa reiterated that SA's slow rollout had been largely beyond the government's control due to global issues with vaccines.
He said the government was worried about the third wave "because the numbers are increasing, and so we are keeping a close eye on that". There are more than 38,000 active cases in SA, with increases recorded this week.
Ramaphosa said earlier this week that the possibility of a harder lockdown would depend on the severity of the third wave.
During a Business for SA (B4SA) briefing on Friday, Discovery Health chief commercial officer Ron Whelan said: "The first week's gone pretty well. There have of course been operational challenges . but whenever you're setting up an operation of this scale and magnitude, you expect that."
However, vaccination capacity needed to be scaled up quickly, he said. While capacity in the public sector was solid, the private sector - which covers the hospital groups, pharmacies and medical scheme administrators - had to bolster capacity rapidly.
"That's really where the focus has to be," said Whelan.
Health department spokesperson Popo Maja did not respond to the Sunday Times' questions, including if additional vaccination sites would be added next week. The department said last week the number of sites would be increased gradually.
South African Medical Association chairperson Angelique Coetzee agreed the first week had gone well.
Some clinics, however, had not been well prepared, she said. Several had also been hit by power outages and did not have backup generators.
"This is unacceptable - there should be no excuse. Every health facility must have a generator."
Coetzee had also heard complaints from some people about the long distances they had to travel. Some people were also nervous about travelling to inner-city vaccination sites such as the Sammy Marks Building in the Pretoria CBD.
"It is important that you look at the environment and where you put your clinics and take into consideration that these are elderly people," she said.
Sisonke implementation study co-principal investigator professor Linda-Gail Bekker said a slow start was to be expected.
"We hope they will build up momentum and that the supply will keep coming," she said.
Professor Glenda Gray, co-principal investigator of Sisonke, agreed the rollout had gone well.
"I think they have done incredibly well and are rapidly scaling up," she said.
It is important that you look at the environment and where you put your clinics and take into consideration that these are elderly peopleSama chairperson Angelique Coetzee
Despite registering early, sculptor and poet Pitika Ntuli, 81, has yet to receive an SMS about a vaccine appointment, and repeated phone calls to the health department have left him frustrated.
Ntuli's daughter-in-law, who is in her 60s, has had her vaccination, yet he and his wife, who is in her 70s, are still waiting.
"Whenever I phone them they say: 'We'll let you know,' " he said. "You are stonewalled."
For residents of Auria Senior Living in Johannesburg, however, getting the jab was painless.
The company, which operates old-age homes in Johannesburg and Cape Town, vaccinated most of its residents in Johannesburg in less than two days, said CEO Barry Kaganson. "We stratified [the residents], starting with more frail people, and vaccinated over 500 residents in two days."
A further 280 residents in Cape Town would be vaccinated next week, he said, pending delivery of vaccines.
"The older adults are grateful that there's light at the end of the tunnel."
A handful of other people got lucky when the electronic vaccination data system crashed briefly on Wednesday, leading to Discovery allowing walk-in patients over the age of 70 at its main vaccination centre at its head office in Johannesburg.
The problem had been resolved, Whelan said.
Infectious diseases specialist professor Francois Venter, of Wits University, said while there had been the expected teething problems, the real test of how well the process is going would be in a few weeks' time.
"It's difficult to say now, as the vaccine enthusiasts are prepared to put up with almost any organisational frustrations," he said.
B4SA's Martin Kingston said enough Pfizer vaccine doses had been delivered or committed to vaccinate the lion's share of the over-60s.
However, the pace of registrations needed to increase dramatically from the 1.6-million people currently registered, he added.
"[Registration] was disappointingly low," he said. "There were less than 1-million last week, which is less than 20% of the population."
Kingston said about 100,000 people were registering every day.
"It needs to ramp up."
- Additional reporting by Amanda Khoza and Claire Keeton
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