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Opinion

Last mile challenge

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva - The Philippine Star

Just a little over a year ago, the Philippines was among countries scrounging to secure supply of vaccines to stop the spread of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. Initially getting half a million doses of Sinovac anti-COVID vaccines from China in March last year, the Philippines had to wait in a long line of countries trying to procure vaccines although still under emergency authority to use (EAU) by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Likened to an unseen enemy that has reached our shores in January 2020, the provisioning for anti-COVID vaccines is seen as the most urgent priority.

Given this formidable challenge, President Rodrigo Duterte picked Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr. to become the “chief implementer” of the National Task Force on COVID responses. Concurrently designated as “vaccine czar,” Galvez immediately buckled down to work and drew up strategic plans to bring anti-COVID vaccines.

Galvez set out a timetable of acquiring anti-COVID vaccines to achieve “population protection” in the medium-term. This is below the 70% of the country’s population to produce the so-called “herd immunity” set by the WHO as target to cut the spread of the pandemic.

Adopting the use of multiple brands of anti-COVID vaccines, the gambit of Galvez paid off amid supply problems. During the peak demand to produce millions of doses needed, the bulk of which have been ordered by richer countries, the Philippine government gathered as much supply of vaccines it can get.

Of the total of 244,731,900 doses of vaccines delivered to the Philippines, 133 million doses were procured by the government; 73,916,210 doses came from COVAX; 24,463,160 doses procured by the LGUs and the private sector; and, 12,615,830 doses from other donor countries.

Galvez reported around 100 million doses of vaccines with longer shelf life are sufficiently available up to end of this year.  He doused fears and concerns that these vaccines might soon expire. According to official words he secured from the COVAX Facility, Galvez disclosed, the expiring vaccines presently at the storage facilities in the Philippines will be replaced. Thus, Galvez set 90 million of the 110 million Filipinos as target to vaccinate by the end of the term of President Duterte on June 30 this year.

During the initial vaccination rollout campaign last year, he cited, the vaccination output reached as many as 20 million a month. It reached highest of 27 million anti-COVID jabs administered for the entire November and 22 million jabs in December last year.

Obviously inspired by the great strides in the nationwide battle against COVID-19 pandemic, the retired Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief of staff perhaps spoke too soon. In our Kapihan sa Manila Bay virtual news forum last Wednesday, Galvez ate his humble pie and admitted the government could not possibly meet the set target.

The government is currently faced with low vaccination rate after the series of rollouts of anti-COVID vaccines. With less than three months left before the end of President Duterte’s term of office, however, only a little over 67 million Filipino people have been so far fully vaccinated since 2021, including those who got booster shots.

He recalled the government projected the vaccination output will be around 15 to 20 million monthly. “But during the time of January this year, it really went down to 18.2 million,” Galvez noted. The decline continued in February, Galvez noted, when total vaccinations went down to 8.7 million for the entire month.

In March, the just concluded Lenten and Ramadan religious gatherings, coupled by the start of the campaign period and conduct of political rallies, Galvez admitted, it further went down to 6.7 million. On the halfway of April, Galvez is worried of another drawback of 2.5 million in the vaccination volume.

Based from the latest National Vaccination Dashboard, the weekly average went down to 41,499 vaccinations, including the third dose, or booster shots.

While many local government units (LGUs) all over the country have sufficiently vaccinated their residents, Galvez revealed, four million residents of the five provinces and three cities in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Mindanao (BARMM) are still unvaccinated. Galvez used his other hat as Duterte’s presidential adviser on the peace process and flew to Cotabato City to meet with BARMM chairman Ebrahim al Haj Murad to correct the situation. A BARMM-wide vaccination campaign will take place after the elections starting May 11 until 20, according to Galvez to include mosques as vaccination centers.

But the major cause of the low uptake, Galvez lamented, is the mistaken notion and misplaced impression of most Filipinos about vaccines. Initially, the government’s vaccination campaign was able to hurdle the challenge of hesitancy. Now, Galvez noted with concern, the fewer hospitalizations and deaths related to COVID-19 infection have given the public a false sense that the pandemic is over.

For now, Galvez lowered the national target to a “more realistic” level of 75 to 80 million Filipinos fully-dose vaccinated along with those who got booster shots. Galvez though vows to achieve the 90 million vaccinated at a longer time frame until the end of this year.

That is, if the next elected leader of the country allows Galvez to continue with his role as the designated “vaccine” czar.

Whoever will become the next elected leader, Galvez pointed out, the anti-COVID vaccination of the government should prevail over bitter fight and differences during the election campaign period. “It should go beyond colors. It must continue. No complete changes. This is a very critical situation, we need continuity,” Galvez exhorted.

This is the so-called “last mile challenge,” a term used in logistics that generally means the transit from the final hub to the delivery destination of the products. For Galvez, he expressed his determination to overcome obstacles going into the last miles of leading President Duterte vaccination program.

COVID-19

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