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Commentary

Ministry of Health must step up to the plate and do its work

If the vaccine effort has to be successful there must be an effective public education campaign to educate the population on the efficacy, effectiveness, and benefits of taking the vaccine.

Although over four thousand persons have taken the first shot of the AstraZeneca vaccine when you compare the figures with that of neighbouring Barbados and take a closer look at the local inoculation effort, you would realise there is an urgent need to boost the immunisation campaign, if the island is to achieve herd immunity by end of summer.

In addition to problems of sourcing sufficient doses of vaccines, another challenge is vaccine hesitancy. Anecdotal evidence suggests that over forty percent of the population are hesitant to take the vaccine. If this problem is not addressed in a timely manner, large segments of the population would not be protected from Covid-19. This will give the virus an opportunity to resurge and spread once again.

The hard fought gains realised over many months of lockdowns and restrictions would easily evaporate into thin air putting any economic recovery in jeopardy.

When government announced it was the recipient of six thousand doses of AstraZeneca vaccines the result of a gesture of regional unity and cooperation by neighbours, Barbados and Dominica, there were many calls for government to develop a national vaccine deployment plan with a comprehensive public education component that would guide the process.

The deployment plan is required to access vaccines allocated to the country under Covax. Whether a deployment plan was prepared or being prepared is uncertain and the current inoculation drive needs an effective public education campaign to get persons to take vaccine rather than hesitating to do so.

The current lackluster effort does not appear to be working. Vaccine hesitancy is real and driven by concern, fear and even anger. People are hesitant to take vaccines because of a multitude of reasons. Some refuse vaccines on religious grounds, others due to historical experiences, lack of trust in authority, influence of misinformation and lies spread by ‘anti vaxxers’ on the internet and a host of other reasons too numerous to mention.

It is a complex phenomenon that can derail the national immunisation campaign and prevent the country from achieving herd immunity.

Anecdotal evidence suggest that close to forty percent of the population are hesitant to take the AstraZeneca vaccine available on the island. This should be of serious concern to policy makers and efforts must be stepped up to address the problem of vaccine hesitancy.

A large number of health care workers constitute the forty percent hesitancy among the population. This is similar to that of the United States where there are widespread reluctance of healthcare workers to take the available vaccines.

The situation reinforces the point that forces other than information and knowledge of the vaccines are at play and the problem of hesitancy is complex and diverse.

Public health authorities must understand that and come up with a comprehensive plan to get more persons to take the vaccine.

If the current inoculation effort is to be successful there must be an effective campaign to get eighty percent of the population to take the vaccine. The Ministry of Health needs to develop a plan to educate the population on the efficacy, effectiveness, and benefits of taking the vaccine.

Close to five thousand persons have received the vaccine in Grenada, in a similar two weeks period, Barbados was able to vaccinate nine times that amount of its citizens in an efficient manner. Granted that Barbados has, available, more doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine having led the region in sourcing from a bilateral arrangement, the island’s rate of vaccination is much higher than Grenada.

In addition to problems of sourcing sufficient doses of the vaccine, another challenge is vaccine hesitancy. Large sections of the population are reluctant to take the vaccine. Anecdotal evidence suggests that over forty percent of the population are unwilling to be vaccinated. If this problem is not addressed, in a timely manner, large segments of the population would not be protected from Covid-19.

This will give the virus an opportunity to resurge and spread once again, only this time it is likely to be one of the more dangerous new strains that would quickly overwhelm the island’s health infrastructure.

Another challenge that needs to be addressed by Ministry of Health authorities, is timely availability of sufficient doses of the vaccine to be able to vaccinate eighty percent of the population. At present just over twenty thousand doses are on the island.

It was said that the Government of India will soon gift one hundred thousand doses to the island. However, there is no word on when the forty five thousand doses allocated to the island under Covax will arrive. Has the Ministry of Health prepared the national vaccine deployment plan and got it vetted by World Health Organisation (WHO), United Nations Children Emergency Fund (UNICEF), or Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO), a requirement to receiving the allocated doses from Covax?

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The national vaccine deployment plan is an operational plan to implement and monitor Covid-19 vaccination roll out in a country. The plan should be developed through a public consultative process spearheaded by the Ministry of Health. If the ministry has such a plan was it done through a consultative process?

Further, can the ministry give some indication as to when the first allotment of vaccines from Covax will be shipped to Grenada? What efforts are being made to source additional doses to meet the eighty percent of the population threshold for herd immunity? These are critical questions the ministry must answer in its next press conference.

The doses of AstraZeneca vaccines being used to vaccinate persons on the island are part of the gift from India to many Caricom islands. This would not be enough even when the Covax allocation is added. Government needs to take urgent action to access more doses of vaccines to be able to vaccinate eighty percent of the population, in addition to addressing the problem of vaccine hesitancy.

Our Prime Minister being one of the longest serving in the Caricom region should have been able to use long standing relationships with leaders in the developed world to access vaccines bilaterally. However, it appears that the ‘new kid on the block’, Mia Mottley of Barbados and another long standing leader, Roosevelt Skerrit of Dominica have out done him.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs appears to be sleeping but it is not too late for a bilateral request, at the level of the Prime Minister to the President of Republic of South Korea for a hundred thousand doses of the AstraZeneca which is also manufactured in that country.

The government of Australia, a traditional bilateral donor, should be approached as well to access the Covavax vaccine that are soon to receive emergency use authorisation and is manufactured in that country. All efforts should be exhausted either through joint Caricom action or country to country bilateral initiatives to access sufficient doses of vaccines to enable the island to achieve herd immunity by the summer.

On that note, the Minister of Health rather than hang around vaccination centres ‘threading’ arounding healthcare workers administering the vaccines, ‘like a cock in heat around a hen in the yard’, should make sure his ministry has completed the national vaccine deployment plan, if it is not done as yet.

Should one be already completed and vetted by one of the development partners, he and his Covid-19 response team should be assessing whether the vaccination effort is going according to plan and how to speed up the rate of inoculations.

He and his team should evaluate the data for vaccinations among high risk groups and determine how well these groups are being covered by the vaccination effort and come up with strategies to improve inoculation, in particular the elderly, healthcare workers, hotel workers, persons with comorbidity and workers at our ports of entry.

The Minister and his team should be considering strategies to deal with the problem of vaccine hesitancy to make sure the country remains on track to vaccinate eighty percent of the population by the summer now that it has been announced that the island will reopen to flights from the United Kingdom at the end of April.

All efforts must be made to ensure a significant percentage of the population is vaccinated by that time. It would be foolish to go ahead and expose the population to the UK, South African and Brazilian variants, knowing very well thousands of citizens are not yet vaccinated.

The Cabinet of Ministers and other policy makers should not forget the recent experience of the UK, after commencing vaccinations in December, the country saw an exponential community spread that resulted in the current round of lock downs.

Grenada can’t afford to drop the ball and allow these new variants to spread on the island. This would delay the return of St. George’s University and the long awaited economic recovery. It is imperative that the island continue to maintain very low levels of infections and positivity rates.

The onus is on the Minister of Health and his team, and the Cabinet of Ministers to make prudent decisions in a timely manner that would reduce vaccine hesitancy and ensure a successful immunisation campaign because for the economy to recover the virus must be neutralised and held at bay.

Cabinet can’t afford to abdicate its role in doing so, too many people who are struggling financially, socially and psychologically are depending on them.

Special Correspondent