Health Department deputy director-general Dr Anban Pillay had special praise for healthworkers in KZN, who led the way with a vaccine rate others could emulate.
“KZN has been working at a pace that is phenomenal, and staff really got the hang of it,” he said.
Vaccinations opened up for the over-60s this week, with 117 000 being vaccinated nationally in the first four days at 155 public and 22 private sites, and the department was optimistic about the roll-out to date.
However, Pillay warned that despite the efforts to vaccinate most over-60s by the end of June, and the rest of the country this year, the third wave was on its way. Although he believed the third wave would be flatter than the second, because the increase in cases was much slower, he said everyone could see the “consequence of the numbers” and should take “the necessary precautions”.
“It’s taken many months of planning to get to this point. We’ve got stocks of vaccine. The first week has seen the usual teething problems, but we’ve done well. The provinces are putting effort in, exceeding 30 000 (vaccinations) on some days, although we’ll need to go well above that. But once people get the rhythm of it and find their feet, we hope it should be like a well-oiled machine.
“The Electronic Vaccine Delivery System is working well. EVDS is the backbone of the system. The doses are moving at a fast pace from our storage. It’s more important that they are in people’s arms rather than in the freezer,” he said.
One of the game-changers was the longer storage life ‒ up to a month in the fridge ‒ of the Pfizer vaccine.
“It will help us a lot in getting it out,” Pillay said. “One of the reasons many private sites were reluctant initially was the Pfizer vaccine’s cold storage issue.”
Another immediate concern is getting the Johnson & Johnson vaccine concentrate released in the USA. It is being held up by the FDA over approval of the relevant vaccine factory.
“Once released, South Africa has the facilities to make the vaccine here, and Aspen is ready to produce the vaccine vials we need,” said Pillay.
Earlier yesterday, Martin Kingston, chairperson of the steering committee at Business For South Africa (B4SA), hailed the first week of vaccinations as a success despite bottlenecks, delays and having to iron out teething problems. He said they were looking to ratchet up the programme to about 250 000 to 300 000 vaccinations a day, to get the entire adult population vaccinated this year.
Next week alone will see 200 sites open.
“We must vaccinate the entire adult population, or as many as possible,” he said. “We can prevent an estimated 40 000 deaths. We’ve got the supplies.”
He said the campaign was starting with the over-60s because, although they made up only 9% of the population, they accounted for 36% of all hospital admissions and 60% of all Covid deaths. In addition to the over-60s, about 500 000 health-workers not vaccinated under the earlier Sisonke programme are included in the initial roll-out
Kingston said there was plenty of vaccine. South Africa had ordered 31 million shots of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and 30 million shots of the Pfizer vaccine, enough for its adult population.
“In terms of vaccine supplies, the country is rolling out 325 000 of the Pfizer vaccines a week in May, upping to 640 000 in June,” he said.
While the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is in limbo, the FDA decision is expected shortly. Even if there were delays in the roll-out of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, Kingston said there was enough Pfizer to do the “lion’s share of the over-60s by July. We’re aiming aggressively to achieve that”.
In addition, registration could soon be opened up to the over-40s.
He said the EVDS was working smoothly, with about 1.6 million of the country’s 5.4 million over-60s registered. Vaccinations were done on a first registered, first served basis, although obviously site location was taken into account.
Kingston said EVDS had the capacity to register other age groups while the over-60s were in the vaccination process, which was why registration for the over-40s should begin soon. Once two-thirds or so of the over-60s were vaccinated, vaccinations would open up to other age groups, likely in July.
It is not possible to get vaccinated unless you register on the EVDS system.
While the level of registration is disappointingly low, said Kingston, there are 120 000 to 130 000 registrations a day, with things picking up as the vaccination campaign builds. He acknowledged that there would be a drop off between those who registered and those who got the jab, and a drop off between those who got their first jab and their second, in the case of the Pfizer vaccine.
The government is also ramping up a campaign among community workers to get as many of the elderly registered as possible.
“We’ll go door to door if necessary,” Kingston said. “We’re approaching trade unions, faith groups and appealing to the youth to assist elders who may be struggling with the technology, and to help register family members.”
Pillay said provincial officials were going to Sassa pay points to help register the over-60s, while in addition to electronic platforms, many of the vaccination sites had registration points in them. There is also a call centre.
B4SA said site roll-out was expected to increase substantially. The organisation’s Dr Lungi Nyathi said there was a system in place to properly evaluate sites and to train staff to administer the vaccine. Most of the extra sites are expected in the private sector. About 750 pharmacies are being evaluated and 2 500 permit requests have been received.
The Independent on Saturday approached Clicks and Dis-Chem for comment on their experiences running vaccinations this week, but had not received replies at time of publication.
Workplace vaccination sites are also on the cards, with a number of the country’s larger industries, especially mining industries, expressing interest in vaccinating their workforce and their families. These would potentially open up an extra 25 000 vaccinations a day and should start coming online at the end of this month or during June.
Pillay encouraged the over-60s to register on the EVDS site. To register go to https://sacoronavirus.co.za/evds/