Sat | Sep 25, 2021

Vaccine cock-up

Inequity dogs roll-out as friends, relatives jump priority groups at sites

Published:Sunday | March 14, 2021 | 12:40 AM

As the nation continues to wait for Prime Minister Andrew Holness and Health Minister Dr Christopher Tufton to take the COVID-19 vaccine, more troubling developments are emerging that powerful interests and their relatives are being given jabs with...

As the nation continues to wait for Prime Minister Andrew Holness and Health Minister Dr Christopher Tufton to take the COVID-19 vaccine, more troubling developments are emerging that powerful interests and their relatives are being given jabs with little transparency over the selection process.

In fact, Tufton has admitted that “glitches” in the process resulted in persons being called and turning up with family members.

Those persons number among the more than 10,000 individuals who have been vaccinated in the first three days of the process, which started last Wednesday.

Errol Greene, the most senior public health administrator in western Jamaica, has confirmed that some persons were vaccinated although they were not scheduled to, but he was unable to say how those persons were selected.

The Government’s vaccination roll-out was hit by claims of inequity and line-skipping in the administration of the AstraZeneca jab at the National Chest Hospital and St Joseph’s Hospital in St Andrew on Friday.

“Yes, there have been instances of that (unscheduled people vaccinated) and what I’m told, is because we wouldn’t want the vaccine to go to waste,” said Greene, the regional director for the Western Regional Health Authority.

Those instances were “minimal”, he added.

“I’m not saying we didn’t have people who got the vaccine that were not initially scheduled but it’s not as wide as I’m hearing,” he told The Sunday Gleaner, bringing into the spotlight the transparency of the process used by the vaccine officials to reach those persons.

COVID-19 vaccines have strict timelines for when they must be used before expiring, including some that must be used within hours of being mixed and thawed.

“Once you take out a vial of the vaccine and put the needle in it to pull out the first dose, you have to use the vaccine within six hours,” Professor Peter Figueroa, a specialist in public health, epidemiology and HIV/AIDS, told The Sunday Gleaner yesterday.

Each vial is able to vaccinate 10 persons, each receiving a single dose.

“What happens sometimes is that, towards the end of the day, you have vaccinated six persons, and you come to the end of the day and you have a vial that still has four doses in it. Usually, what you have to do is try and find four persons to vaccinate that same day. Otherwise, you lose those four doses because you cannot put it back into the fridge or keep it for the next day,” Figueroa further explained.

A public health official based in the western end if the island, who did not want to be named, explained that when scheduled persons do not turn up, to prevent throwing away the product, offers were made to persons not on the list.

“The people who came were not ordinary people. I didn’t like it, but I follow instructions and do my job. Is really who you know in this country,” the official said.

Greene insisted that all efforts were made to ensure healthcare workers received their injections and were not displaced by the others.

The health ministry’s plan was that if doses in a vial were not complete and the scheduled persons were completed or did not turn up, a reserve list would be used to contact persons likely among the priority groups.

Tufton admitted there were breaches.

“Persons have been contacted, in some instances, not necessarily from a list and those persons would have called other persons and a general rush would have taken place,” he said, pointing to Friday’s situation at St Joseph’s Hospital, where private healthcare workers were due to be injected.

“Some persons, having got appointments to go, took family members and that is not a part of the arrangement … and in some cases, some of them might have been called also, to be totally frank, by the organisers,” he told The Sunday Gleaner, adding he was “sure we have had a few other breaches of the process around the country but these were more isolated circumstances”.

One site administrator has reported to The Sunday Gleaner that unscrupulous health workers have been found to be enrolling relatives and people outside of the target group.

“Already, people trying to beat the system. They are sending their helpers, they are sending their friends, and claiming that they are a part of the workplace. It is so sad because they are robbing from people who need it the most,” said the administrator, who requested anonymity.

But the minister is insisting that the deviations are not suggestive of poor planning.

“The process worked. What we have to do now is clarify the policy … . We’re hoping that things will be better off going into the new week.”

The issues were discussed during a Cabinet meeting Saturday.

Hoping to get lucky

Following the bungling on Friday, by 8 a.m. yesterday, people started to stream in at the St Joseph’s Hospital. They had no appointments to be inoculated. Neither were they among the current priority groups.

By 10 a.m., dozens of people had gathered, hoping to get lucky.

Tufton’s health ministry issued a statement yesterday, reminding that for the period Sunday, March 14 to Friday, March 19, only healthcare workers and members of the Jamaica Constabulary Force and the Jamaica Defence Force will be inoculated”.

A centralised appointments system is yet to be launched although the South Eastern Regional Health Authority (SERHA), which is responsible for the Corporate Area, jumped the gun in making public a web page that has been scrapped and with it dozens of requests.

Those who registered on the SERHA platform will have to do so again when the national portal is activated, said Dr Melody Ennis, the director of family services in the Ministry of Health on Friday evening during an interview on Radio Jamaica’s ‘Beyond the Headlines’.

The COVID-19 pandemic has claimed at least 494 lives locally over the past year. Some 92 additional deaths were ruled coincidental while another 56 are yet to be classified.

Up to Friday, according to health ministry data, 29,912 cases of COVID-19 were detected locally. Almost half – 13,939 – are currently active.

Yesterday, Opposition Spokesman on Health Dr Morais Guy called on the Government to revise the inoculation protocol.

For one, he does not believe JDF members should be prioritised over the elderly.

Previously, it was announced that 10,000 JDF personnel had been included in the Phase One group.

Public-health authorities – such as World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control – have determined that the risk of hospitalisation and death from COVID is 10 to 20 times greater for elderly persons than it is for persons in the median age of a JDF soldier.

Therefore, the approach to prioritise healthy soldiers over the elderly is unethical,” Guy said.

“Is this fall-back position precipitated by the MoHW’s bungling of the vaccine roll-out during its first week?” he asked. “This was evidenced by the crash of the MoHW’s COVID vaccine registration site at the outset, and also by the many persons not included in Phase One who were nevertheless vaccinated.”

Yesterday, Figueroa called for the prime minister and the health minister to take the public vaccine amid concerns in Europe over blood clots.

“I’m hoping that they will go forward shortly because it sets an example to the country and to everyone that they are fully committed to the vaccine and recognise its importance – that it’s safe and effective,” he told The Sunday Gleaner.

In many other countries with vaccination under way, the head of government and health minister were among the first persons to take the vaccines to shore up public confidence.

However, so far Holness and Tufton are yet to be inoculated with the health minister indicating that they will not receive the jab before April.

editorial@gleanerjm.com