Some chaos reigned  as a vaccination saga gripped mainly the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC) area, with reports from other areas within the Western Province indicating a slightly more organized approach in Phase I of the community vaccination programme from around February 17 to 25. The preventive measures that the Health Ministry has been stressing on [...]


Chaos reigns at vaccination centres

Systems break down as queue jumping becomes the norm

Some chaos reigned  as a vaccination saga gripped mainly the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC) area, with reports from other areas within the Western Province indicating a slightly more organized approach in Phase I of the community vaccination programme from around February 17 to 25.

Sunday Times witnessed firsthand the mayhem at the Torrington Housing Scheme on Monday, after numerous calls by irate people summoned us there. Pix by M.A. Pushpa Kumara

The preventive measures that the Health Ministry has been stressing on went unheeded with people thronging the vaccination centres, not keeping even a few inches’ distance, let alone a metre distance, with many joking about the danger of a ‘vaccine pokura’ (vaccine cluster) emerging from the CMC area.

Adding to the confusion and frustration in the CMC area, people complained that lists with the names of favourites were ignoring people who had stayed in the queue for hours on end. These lists were also circulating on social media.

The Sunday Times saw firsthand the mayhem at the Torrington Housing Scheme on Monday, after numerous calls by irate people summoned us there.

There was finger-pointing, shouting and booing as a foreign couple squeezed through the tiny gap between the desk where two girls were registering those to be vaccinated and the wall, giving scant regard to young and old (some even on insulin and on the verge of fainting) who had been in the queue since 8.30 a.m. in the hot sun. They were still in the queue at 12 noon.

Many people said that they heard through word-of-mouth that vaccines were to be given to those living in the Kirula Road Medical Officer of Health (MOH) area and a coupon had to be collected from the MOH office.

So many rushed there over the weekend and got the coupons with numbers and a time-allocation and were asked to be at the Torrington Praja Shalawa at 8.45 a.m. the next day (Monday). When they went there, nothing was happening and they were told to go to the  Torrington Housing Scheme which they did.

Once the two girls registered the people after looking at the coupons, most rushed into the vaccination area which was chock-a-block, while some just barged in without registering.

“It seems as if who you are, is what matters when getting the vaccine. Influential people can just walk in,” said one, as many in the queue nodded vigorously.

Other vaccination centres in the CMC area reported similar problems, with many critical that locals were being turned away for whatever reason, while foreigners “waltzed in on a priority basis” and got the jab without any hassle, smacking of an apartheid-like situation.

“People were bypassing the system and accessing the limited vaccine doses available,” a source said, adding that it was “really wrong” but they got away with it and were also allowed to get away with it.

It was also a free-for-all and whoever had the power just went for it and got vaccinated, she said.

This was while strong protests continued from within the health sector to rectify the situation forthwith.

The COVID-19 vaccination programme began on January 29, with a donation of 500,000 doses from India of the COVISHIELD vaccine which had been produced under AstraZeneca licence by the Serum Institute, and a strong priority list in place.

Around 250,000 doses had been given to frontline health workers and frontline security forces personnel.

The trouble began when public vaccination began with the priority list being discarded on February 17 (Wednesday). Those next on the priority list – the high-risk elderly over 60 years and those in the younger group with co-morbidities – were abandoned and a vaccination spree of any and everyone in the 30-60 age-group began with the then available balance of 250,000 doses.

With strong protests from clinicians and the National Advisory Committee on Communicable Diseases (NACCD) – the respected technical committee of the Health Ministry which had come up with the priority list which had also been sent to the global vaccine initiative COVAX – at a meeting on February 17 (Wednesday), the ministry had attempted to damage control by “including” the elderly in the programme by the evening of February 19 (Friday).

Critical about the “maldistribution” of the vaccine to adults in the 30-59 age-group, the Vaccine and Infectious Diseases Forum of Sri Lanka stated that “our opinion and the opinion of the World Health Organization (WHO) are entirely different”. According to the WHO protocol, the first priority is healthcare workers and the next people over 65 years and people with co-morbidities.

The Forum stated: “Countries such as Israel have vaccinated the elderly over 65 years and people with comorbid features first, before giving the vaccine to healthcare workers. The reason was to bring down the mortality. In fact, Israel has seen the results within three weeks with a significant reduction of deaths. New Zealand has decided to follow Israel by giving the elderly first before giving to healthcare workers. In fact, the primary purpose of this vaccination is to avert deaths.

Some complained that those who suddenly arrived in vehicles had jumped the queue

“The vaccine efficacy ranges from 70-84% signifying a possibility of getting COVID-19 infection despite vaccination. But with the AstraZeneca vaccine (COVISHIELD), it is observed that the mortality reduction is almost 100%. That is the primary aim of this vaccine programme. Therefore, the ministry decision to give the remaining vaccines to the public between 30-59 years is meaningless. The number of doses left would be only 2-3 hundred thousand and with such a limited number of doses, how can you cover the population between 30-59 years,” it adds.

Dr. Haritha Aluthge of the Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA) told the Sunday Times that globally vaccine stocks are limited. No one can predict when Sri Lanka would be able to cover even the 20% of our population (4 million) through COVAX. There itself, we will need 8 million for the double doses.

With regard to the vaccine rollout, he said the initial decision that was agreed upon should be followed. The country prepared a comprehensive National Vaccine Deployment Plan in early January with the consensus of everybody. This was what was sent to the WHO as well.

“Around 190,000 frontline healthcare workers and security forces were vaccinated in the first step but the target was 150,000 and 100,000 respectively, but we understand that there is a gap of 60,000 and this should be clarified by the Epidemiology Unit. A majority of our target, however, was covered fundamentally and it was done smoothly,” he said, adding that the second step under which the next target group (elderly and those in the younger age-group with co-morbidities) has hit a snag.

Dr. Aluthge pointed out that no one knew how or why it was changed and that is how it became disorganized.

“Where is the detailed Guideline for COVID-19 vaccination that needs to be drawn up by the Epidemiology Unit? This is a requirement which has not been fulfilled yet,” he added.

Voicing concerns over the same issues, the Joint Secretary of the People’s Movement for the Rights of Patients (PMRP), Christine Perera, has written to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa seeking his intervention to ensure equitable distribution.

The movement has strongly requested that the health authorities should adhere to the guidelines laid down by the NACCD; establish a registration process as they see thousands of people flocking to sites with the possibility of spreading the virus; they also find the influential receiving priority; and that since this is a new vaccine still in the process of ongoing trials, vaccination should be given in a hospital setting at least for the elderly and patients with co-morbidities to avoid any adverse effects.

The Association of Private Hospitals and Nursing Homes (APHNH), meanwhile, commending the government’s decision to prioritize private sector healthcare workers in the ongoing vaccination drive, pointed out that the private healthcare sector is yet to receive its full quota of doses.

“The APHNH remains hopeful that the remaining doses will be provided as the country’s vaccine stock grows by the end of February,” its President Lakith Peiris said.

What was the basis on which areas were selected for the vaccination programme, others grumbled, with a person from Colombo 15 pointing out that her area was under the “longest” lockdown.

There were several reports of large numbers from other areas such as Battaramulla, surreptitiously getting themselves vaccinated at CMC centres. “Nobody checked our identity cards to establish where we were from. There were no protocols and no systems in place,” many said.

A father and daughter who got the vaccine at Campbell Park on Thursday said that they heard on Tuesday about the programme on the grapevine. They joined the queue at 5.30 a.m. with about 12 people before them. The staff involved in the vaccination began registering people and then there was a run into the room where the injections were being given.

There were 300 people in there, awaiting the vaccines. When the vaccines came at about 8.15 a.m. the efficient staff “gaththa, haruna, gahuwwa” to anyone who was seated, the father said, explaining that he was feeling sorry for the staff.

The mess-up began when all the people who were registered were allowed into the vaccination area, it is understood. That is where the system failed.

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