FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - June 1, 2021 - 12:00am

Sen. Francis Tolentino advocates what he calls a “waterfalls” policy for our vaccination program. Under this policy, inoculations could now be offered to those in the lower priority categories while keeping a green lane open for those in the top priority categories.

This should be workable policy as we begin receiving more and more vaccine deliveries. The vaccination program is being held up waiting for medical workers, seniors and people with comorbidities who have yet to show up for their shots.

WHO specifies the prioritization of people to get jabs. We adopted this prioritization as our part of the bargain for benefitting from the Covax Facility. The scheme governing who get doses first will have to be maintained at least for doses we have received through the Covax.

Over the coming period, more and more of the vaccines due for delivery will have been procured either by government, the LGUs and the private sector. The procured doses need not be governed by the WHO prioritization.

So far, with limited supplies, our vaccination program has performed quite well – even if it may be criticized for being slow. A1 (health workers) beneficiaries could not be inoculated en masse but scheduled according to the staffing needs of our hospitals. When the surge happened in April, our overwhelmed hospitals needed all hands on deck.

A2 (seniors) beneficiaries did not turn up in droves as expected. At some point, the doses will have to be delivered to their homes. This will require a tedious, costly and slow process.

A3 (people with comorbidities) beneficiaries turned up in good numbers for their shots. In many localities, individuals were included in this category merely on their say-so. Local governments were, after all, themselves under pressure to inoculate as many as possible.

We are now ready to inoculate those in the A4 (frontline workers) category. The vaccination program should be proceeding at a faster pace when we get millions of doses due for delivery in June.

When the doses ordered by the private sector and local governments begin arriving late June and July, the vaccines should be available to nearly everyone who wants them. After that, we should be able to achieve some amount of “population protection” for our people.

The US vaccination program was such a great success because of the ample amount of vaccines available and the fact that all doors to inoculation were thrown wide open from the start. Doses were made available through large sporting venues, drive-through facilities and the corner drug store. National Guard units were used to deliver doses to remote communities.

Notwithstanding, there remained about 30 percent vaccine hesitancy in the population. This is the reason the vaccination rate dropped dramatically over the last few weeks. After those that want to get vaccinated are given their shots, the vaccination sites empty out.

As in the US, we have about 30 percent of our people who are vaccine-hesitant. While supply is still short, that has not yet become a problem. It will be after we are done vaccinating the 70 percent. At the moment, we should not let the vaccine-hesitant slow down the process of protecting our population.

Whether or not we achieve herd immunity by the end of the year is a non-issue. Only Vice-President Leni Robredo seems to want to spend her time quibbling over the matter. What is important is to be able to quickly administer the doses as we get them. Supply, which is beyond our control, dictates how many we are able inoculate.

Meanwhile, we can supplement our supply by acquiring doses wealthier countries could not use. Hong Kong, for instance, is reported to be ready to discard large amounts of Pfizer vaccines due to expire in September. We could beg for that if we show we are able to administer them quickly to a willing population.

Our ambassador to the US says we are in line to receive millions of doses of excess AstraZeneca vaccines. Israel, leading the world in inoculation rates, is said to be donating to us some of its surplus Pfizer vaccines.

These vaccines have short shelf lives. Over the next few months, there should be tens of millions of excess vaccines from countries that hoarded them earlier in the year. We should not be shy about begging for them. We have established a rather credible record for administering these vaccines.

Last month, incurable critics of the vaccination program tried to make an issue of AstraZeneca vaccines sitting in storage due to expire at the end of June. Nearly all of these doses have now been administered. We have a good team in charge of the vaccination drive.

A few of the vaccine brands available – namely Pfizer and Moderna – have been proven safe for people as young as 12. We could start vaccinating adolescents here with large incoming deliveries of these two vaccines over the next few months. That will, however, require another $1 billion for vaccine procurement.

Vaccine hesitancy is not yet a problem for us. Demand will remain larger than supply possibly until the end of the year. Let’s worry about hesitancy later, when supply exceeds demand.

Today, supply remains the controlling factor. Much as we have the capacity to inoculate as many as 800,000 a day, we do not have the supply yet.

All we can do at the moment is to keep preparing our capacity, improving on our cold chain and recruiting more health workers. This quibbling (for political effect) over things that are not yet problems is a waste of energy.

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