‘Last mile’ glitch in vaccination plan

BIZLINKS - Rey Gamboa - The Philippine Star

We’re not short of vaccines now. In fact, they are now pouring out of our ears. What we lack, though, is foresight. Sorely.

In the midst of all this talk about vaccine inequity, the Philippines finds itself in an enviable situation of being a developing economy that has managed to secure enough vaccines against COVID-19 to achieve herd immunity for a nation of 110 million citizens.

Yet, despite this advantage, the jabs are not reaching the intended recipients fast enough. Since vaccines started arriving in late April at the NAIA, a little less than 26 million Filipinos have been fully vaccinated to date, either with the single J&J dose or the more common double dose of other vaccine brands.

As admitted by the country’s vaccine czar, Secretary Carlito Galvez, Jr., some 39 million doses are in vaccine storage houses waiting to be shipped to the provinces, where vaccines are needed to curb still-high infection levels.

However, coordination with local government units that will receive the shipments are just being sorted out, further delaying the implementation of more jabs. The latest seven-day average of vaccination is less than 400,000, a far cry from the set target last month of one million jabs a day.

Lately, the government has been talking about ramping up vaccinations to 1.5 million a day before Christmas, with more vaccine supplies flying in before month-end. For the sake of the country, I sincerely hope that everybody involved will pull off this ambitious target.

Weak planning, poor execution

What accounts for the “last mile” glitch in this vaccination campaign? Simply: Weak planning, and more importantly, execution that lacks in creativity and flexibility.

In January this year, the Department of Health, together with the National Task Force Against COVID 19 (IATF), signed off on a 137-page interim plan staidly titled The Philippine National Deployment and Vaccination Plan for COVID 19 Vaccines.

As expected, many aspects of the plan are premised on information that has quickly changed. At that time, a number of COVID-19 vaccines were already being safely dispensed in the European Union and the US, and this was slowly chipping away the high vaccine hesitancy in the Philippines.

In fact, in the UK, infections were dropping and intensive care units in hospitals were starting to relax after experiencing a mortifying overflow in patient admittance. By then, though, vaccine supply had become scarce as Europe, the US, and a number of developed economies had diligently placed advance orders in numbers far more than they needed.

Luckily for the Philippines, the government managed to leverage on its diplomatic ties with China and wangled an early delivery of 600,000 donated doses of Sinovac. Despite misgivings about its effectiveness, the vaccination rollout started among frontline health workers on March 1.

Funnily, queues formed only when non-Chinese or non-Russian vaccines were offered, even among health workers. Thus, vaccination centers would often allow walk-ins for Sinovac jabs just to use up the daily allocation.

The DOH and IATF have obviously been hampered by conditions set forth in the vaccination plan, where only those on the priority list can receive jabs. The private sector had to fight hard for permission to import their vaccines for employees and workers, more so for family members.

The government’s vaccine allocation plan was also based on where infection levels were high. Only after enough push by the President’s economic team was the concept of prioritizing the vaccination of the whole of Metro Manila, the country’s economic hub, accepted.

Thankfully, with over 80 percent of the metro’s population now fully vaccinated, infection rates are quickly dropping. We can look forward to a 90 percent vaccination rate in the next 30 days, when those who have had their first shots will be eligible for their second jabs.

Getting more Filipinos vaccinated

The IATF seems at a loss on how to achieve its goal of 1.5 million jabs a day until Christmas. Thankfully, and if the IATF listens, the private sector is offering solutions. It’s still not too late for the government to listen and accept the extended helping hand.

Densely populated cities in other regions can learn from many best practices successfully developed by local government units in Metro Manila. Focusing the vaccination drive on provincial cities first will mitigate the disastrous economic effects of lockdowns. Surrounding municipalities and barangays can follow after.

The IATF should also adopt some flexibility in allowing who can get the jab. Vaccine hesitancy is higher outside of Metro Manila for a number of reasons, even if most of the vaccines deployed there are made by Pfizer or Moderna. Don’t expect queues to magically appear.

Holiday break

Finally, with confirmed supplies of 150 million vaccines – and possibly more coming, we have enough to vaccinate the whole adult population of the country, as well as children and adolescents within the age groups of 12 and above. Let’s do it! Quickly!

There’s some vested personal interest in this impatience for me. During this year’s holiday break, Filipino families should at least be able to look forward to having Christmas and New Year dinners with their whole family, even if this still means practicing some social distancing, no hugging or kissing, and wearing of masks.

The past 19 months have been extra tough for most Filipinos. Not only have they experienced diminished or lost incomes and savings, but have also been deprived of the opportunity to meet family members face to face. No more Zoom, please!

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Should you wish to share any insights, write me at Link Edge, 25th Floor, 139 Corporate Center, Valero Street, Salcedo Village, 1227 Makati City. Or e-mail me at reydgamboa@yahoo.com. For a compilation of previous articles, visit www.BizlinksPhilippines.net.

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