South Africa is facing a national emergency on top of the COVID-19 state of disaster as the vaccination pace slumps, the government admitted on Tuesday.
According to a TimesLIVE report, Friday's total of 153,999 jabs administered was more than 43% lower than the daily record of 273,011 set on 21 July. This week's total was the lowest since the end of June.
Expressing concern at the statistics, Francois Venter, professor of medicine at Wits University, said, “The continued inability to hit daily vaccine targets should definitely be seen as a national emergency now. Simply dropping vaccination age thresholds is not going to prevent a fourth-wave disaster.”
The many deserted vaccination sites countrywide were due to “total communication failure [by the government]”. Although the country has enough vaccine doses, health department statistics reveal that in the 50-59 age group, only 14% of women and 10% of men have been vaccinated. About 25% of women older than 60 have been vaccinated, but only 16% of men.
Health Department deputy director-general Nicholas Crisp told TimesLIVE: “Well, we do not have a budget at the moment, that's the problem,” and declined to elaborate.
Professor Jeremy Seekings, director of the centre for social science research at the University of Cape Town, said the department’s target was to inoculate 70% of the adult population, about 28 million people, by year-end. “Only four million people have been fully vaccinated and only seven million people partly vaccinated,” Seekings said.
Conceding the slow pace of vaccines, notes TimesLIVE, newly appointed deputy minister of health Dr Sibongiseni Dhlomo said this was mainly to vaccine hesitancy.
“The president made a pronouncement a few weeks ago that he wanted us vaccinating up to 300,000 South Africans per day,” said Dhlomo. “By 21 July, we were excited when we were sitting at about 275,000, but we are now down to about 175,000 vaccinations per day. That is a red light saying that something should be happening that is not happening.”
According to a TimesLIVE report, in its presentation to the National Council of Provinces’ (NCOP) select committee on health and social services, the department painted a bleak picture of how it was struggling to use all the vaccines the country has secured.
Dhlomo, who is former chairperson of the portfolio committee on health, said initially the country struggled to secure vaccine supplies, but now the department was grappling with vaccine hesitancy.
“With those 60 and above, the uptake has been good. We want to accelerate that to about 70% but we are not there yet. In those 50 and above sector, the uptake has not been impressive and we want to do more than that. With those 35 and above, we have not seen a very significant uptake, and that is our worry. In the next two weeks we will open for those 18 and above, and almost every South African will be eligible for the vaccine.”
However, in an effort to accelerate the pace, Health Minister Joe Phaahla told Radio 702 on Monday that people over the age of 18 could start receiving vaccines from as early as the end of this week.
He said the government had initially planned that vaccinations for this group would start in September but that he was in consultations with the cabinet that could bring that deadline forward.
“If not before the end of this week, at the latest the beginning of next week. We probably, even before the end of this week … will open for all adults above 18,” he said.
He said the government had been hoping more people would be vaccinated, and that current statistics were worrying.
“We thought they would be coming in bigger numbers. We are disappointed. I was at a meeting with all provinces, and it seems that after quite a good turnout at the beginning of the vaccination process … the turnout has been reducing.”
Limpopo is the only province that has been successful in its campaign to vaccinate, and currently has the highest rate of vaccinated citizens in the country, notes TimesLIVE. On how it had achieved SA's highest per capita vaccination rate, the province's deputy director-general for health Dr Muthei Dombo said traditional healers and leaders, church leaders and other community influencers had been co-opted; farms and mines in the area were being targeted by vaccination teams, and sport and recreation groups were hosting weekend vaccination drives
"We have also reached out to tribal offices and community halls. We have a drive-through site and have set up mobile facilities in high-transit zones like shopping malls," said Dombo.
Phaahla said fake news and the anti-vaccination campaign had been gaining momentum, especially on social media. The health department, he added, had “urged all provinces that we need to get out of our hospitals and clinics and move to communities”.
Crisp said: “The biggest challenge is no longer the vaccine nor our capacity, because we have more than 3,000 sites on any day. The biggest challenge is driving demand and getting the public past the point where we are now.”
He said the country has “quite a huge amount of vaccines and we are expecting a lot more”.
In total, adds TimesLIVE, SA is expected to receive 28,097,300 vaccine doses comprising 19,100,000 Johnson & Johnson (J&J) and 8,997,300 Pfizer vaccines in the fourth quarter. Crisp said the September delivery dates were not known yet. Currently, only 12% of the population is vaccinated.
“Our target is to get to 70% of the adult population by the end of the year, but even if we get above 65% we would regard that as a success and then we would push on in the new part of next year.”
Regarding vaccine hesitancy, Crisp said what people think and feel about the vaccine was important.
“The programme has lost momentum. We need to get that back and we need to keep on with non-pharmaceutical interventions. We need to convey messages to the public that vaccinations are safe and prevent hospitalisation and loss of lives.”
Meanwhile, Business for South Africa (B4SA), which is coordinating the private sector’s work with the government to roll out the national vaccination programme, confirmed on Tuesday that all private sector vaccination sites countrywide are accepting walk-ins from anyone currently eligible for vaccination (at the moment people aged 35 and above), regardless of whether they have medical aid or not.
According to PoliticsWeb, sites will accept anyone for vaccination who has an ID, passport or other form of identification, regardless of their nationality.
These sites include independent community pharmacies and corporate pharmacy chains (examples are Dis-Chem and Clicks), private hospitals and medical scheme vaccination sites. (Workplace sites are currently vaccinating their staff and are not yet open to the public).
B4SA also confirmed that while sites will prioritise those with scheduled appointments and those older than 60, no one over 35 needs to pre-register before visiting a site for a vaccination. Private sites are ensuring that staff are equipped and ready to assist people to register once they arrive.
However, to save time and prevent a long wait in queues, the pubic is encouraged to pre-register on the EVDS at https://vaccine.enroll.health.gov.za/#/ before visiting a site for vaccination.
Stavros Nicoloau, chair of the health work group for B4SA says: “We have been concerned that people believe that only those with medical aid can visit private sector sites, and this is not correct. All sites will deliver the same service, free, to anyone who needs a vaccine. We encourage all citizens over 35, whether registered or not, insured or not, to visit a vaccine site closest to them to receive their life-saving vaccination. The president announced that vaccinations for those over 18 are expected to open on 1 September, and this free service will be available to them too.
“Of course, it helps when people pre-register on the EVDS, and use the appointment schedulers that are available to book their slot. Bookings can be made on the phone, directly with a site, or through the various online scheduling tools available. But getting the vaccine as soon as you can is the priority, so walk into your nearest site if this is more convenient.”
The evidence on how effective COVID-19 vaccines are in preventing severe illness and death is overwhelming. Data from hospitals around the world are showing there are virtually no vaccinated people in intensive care units, or dying from COVID-19.
In the US, less than 0.5% of those who die from COVID-19 are vaccinated, while more than 95% of those hospitalised are unvaccinated.
This is the same in South Africa. Dr Marc Mendelson, head of Infectious Diseases and HIV Medicine at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town, said last week that he has not seen a single vaccinated person in Groote Schuur’s COVID high care ward for weeks.
Added Nicolaou: “We have all been subject to severe disruption in our lives due to the pandemic, lockdowns and restrictions placed on us to guard us against infection. Vaccinating is the single most important tool to once again being able to do the things we love: visiting our places of worship, travelling, attending sporting and cultural events, hugging our loved ones, and socialising. The power to do all of this resides within each of us – don’t delay, get your jab and encourage and help all those around you to do the same.”
A full list of private sector vaccination sites, by province, with addresses and telephone numbers, ise on the B4SA website (www.businessforsa.org) while the public (government) and private sector list of vaccination sites can be found at: https://sacoronavirus.co.za/active-vaccination-sites/
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