The plan was to fully vaccinate everyone over 45 years by May 30 by conducting mass vaccination camps.
Kerala breathed a sigh of relief on Tuesday as fresh supplies of vaccine – albeit in minor quantities – is slated to reach the State later today, which will help the State tide over the imminent situation of vaccine shortage.
COVID-19 vaccination in the State has been facing immense challenges since the past two weeks after the vaccine supplies from the Centre became more erratic and the demand for vaccination suddenly surged amongst the public.
The State, which used to maintain a buffer stock of nearly eight lakh doses of vaccines in the early days of COVID-19 vaccination, is now literally scraping at the bottom. Even after severely limiting the vaccination sessions and cutting down the number of sites drastically, these past few days, the State was managing a day at a time, as it has barely had enough vaccine doses in its stock.
On Tuesday, the news that four lakh doses of Covishield and about 75,000 doses of Covaxin would be arriving later in the day was thus met with huge relief.
“The State had demanded of the Centre an immediate supply of 50 lakh doses of vaccine to cover the 45 plus age group. However, there is vaccine shortage across the country and we have known for a while now that bulk stocks would no longer be forthcoming from the Centre. We will only get small quantities of vaccine at fixed intervals, so that the daily vaccination sessions are not disrupted,” a senior Health official said.
The State’s efforts to directly purchase vaccines from vaccine manufacturers also has not borne fruit till now as the Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech have made it amply clear that they could not make any promises to the State till they fulfilled their prior commitments to the Centre.
This means that the pace of vaccination will be terribly slowed down in the State as mass vaccinations are no longer possible.
The vaccination, which had been opened up for the 60 plus age group on March 1, had started off well. After the epidemic curve began rising in the State in March last week, the State decided to intensify the pace of vaccination. The plan was to fully vaccinate everyone over 45 years by May 30 by conducting mass vaccination camps.
In the midst of vaccine shortage, the Centre also chose to open up vaccination for all above 18 years. The new vaccine policy of the Centre meant that it would no longer pay for the vaccination of those in the 18-45 group. Private sector was asked to purchase vaccines directly from the open market.
“Till April 30, we had Government supply of vaccines. After May 1, the Government stopped this supply and we have had to send a lot of people back disappointed,” a manager at a private vaccination site said.
Because of acute vaccine shortage, vaccination for the 18-45 age group is likely to remain a non-starter in Kerala for a while.
Vaccination is now mostly limited to Government hospitals and the sessions are so limited that the appointment slots, available only through CoWin portal, gets over in a matter of seconds. Most people have found it absolutely impossible to get on-line appointments, despite spending hours with the portal.
However, unless the State gets bulk supplies of vaccine, it is not in a position to schedule appointments beyond the next day and the current travails of the public is likely to continue.
Public health experts have been watching this dramatic fall in the pace of vaccination with much worry.
“If we are vaccinating in the middle of the pandemic, it has to be done as rapidly as possible and the coverage has to be high, for the vaccination to have any impact on slowing down disease transmission.
The longer it takes to cover the susceptible population, the more opportunities we are giving the virus to mutate into newer variants. Pockets of vaccinated people in the population would be putting more selection pressure on the virus to evolve,” says Rakhal Gaitonde, a public health specialist at the Sree Chitra Tirunal Institute for Medical Sciences and Technology.