Health ministry defends decision to vaccinate adults amid criticisms and growing concerns

Dunstan Bryan yesterday defended the health and wellness ministry’s decision to give doses of the Pfizer vaccine to adults, despite criticism that it may have negatively impacted the State’s intention to prioritise the vaccination of children 12-18 years old,in a push to reopen schools for face-to-face instruction.

But even as Bryan, the ministry’s chief accountable officer, packed sandbags during is appearance before the Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC), concern grows among Jamaicans who took the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine and, with the recommended three-week interval between doses now elapsed, are anxious about taking the second jab.

A 25-year-old resident of Maverley in St Andrew told the Jamaica Observer yesterday that she took her first dose on August 29 and was supposed to take her second shot on September 20.

“I have a little fear in it now that it is not here and I am not sure when we are going to get it, and after it passes six weeks, I am wondering if, with the other dose that I am getting, it is going to have any side effects. There are just a lot of questions. I am really worried,” said the woman who opted not to be named.

She said the moment she realised that she wouldn’t get her second shot on the scheduled date, the first thought that came to her mind was, “If dem people here real.”

“I thought they had it [second doses]. Why they didn’t just stop giving it out to everybody and just leave for the second dose people dem? It would have been much better. But everybody come and they just give them. We are facing something that we shouldn’t even be facing,” she added.

Asked if she has lost faith in the health ministry’s ability to administer the vaccines, she said, “I think they are very careless, because they [are] encouraging people fi take the vaccine. A lot of people don’t want to take it, and then very few people taking it. You should have ensured that you put down second doses. It is three weeks, come on! It is not six weeks like AstraZeneca, and we did not take a one shot like Johnson & Johnson, we took a Pfizer for three weeks. Unnuh slack! Who feel like nobody a go get up now and take a booster shot?”

A 40-year-old mother of two in the Corporate Area said, while she was not yet panicking, she is starting to get worried.

She told the Observer that her 14-year-old son and 15-year-old daughter were due their second dose on September 24.

“Now the extra three weeks move them to October 15, and mi just want to hear some good news now. I don’t want to enter next week and not know when dem going to get dem second dose,” said the concerned mother.

According to data provided by Bryan to the PAAC yesterday, only 34,193 children between the ages of 12 and 18 have been fully vaccinated, and 12,614 have received their first dose. This translates to 81,000 doses out of the 208,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine which arrived here in August, being administered to the cohort.

At the same time, Bryan advised the committee that there are 890 doses of Pfizer still available for use at the discretion of health personnel on the ground.

Bryan was responding to concerns raised by Member of Parliament for St Andrew East Rural Juliet Holness at Tuesday’s meeting, and again yesterday, as she made clear her disagreement with the health ministry offering the vaccine to adults instead of exclusively to children, leaving nearly 60,000 doses of AstraZeneca vaccines to expire at the end of September.

Holness contends that the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines could have instead been offered to adults who were given the Pfizer.

The PAAC is reviewing the Government’s first supplementary budget for this fiscal year. The proposed additional expenditure is $33 billion for more resources to the health sector, assistance for the most vulnerable, and other critical areas in the context of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Yesterday Bryan said the ministry had not been derelict in its vaccination policy, insisting that there was never a plan to exclusively offer the Pfizer vaccine to children.

“The priority of the vaccination programme [generally] is the vaccination of the vulnerable  that point has to be at the forefront of the mind of every policy deliberation that we have had. We have prioritised this vaccine, but it does not dispense, nor does it discredit the first function of a vaccination programme, which is to protect the vulnerable; therefore, our conversation cannot be and should never be around exclusivity of any vaccine,” he argued, adding that there is a question as to whether available doses of vaccines should be used up, or should vaccines be preserved to ensure that second doses are available.

Pointing out that those who have received first doses of Pfizer still have some level of protection, he said, “From our position, we believe that having 200,000 persons receiving some protection is a better argument than to have 100,000 persons receiving full [protection]”.

Holness was not satisfied. She said she acknowledged the need to move to the vulnerable first, but argued that if a perception is created that Pfizer is the “Clarks of vaccination”, efforts to convince Jamaicans, especially in deep rural areas who already face a challenge accessing vaccines, will be more difficult.

The MP said she had not observed a strong push for AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines during the Pfizer blitz, and suggested that those vaccines should have been made available to adults at the sites.

Of the 369,080 doses of AstraZeneca now available in country, another 268,280 doses will expire on October 31, and 100,800 on November 30.

One hundred and seventy thousand people are now due their second dose of the vaccine, lead clinician for the national vaccination programme Dr Melody Ennis informed the PAAC.

On September 14, portfolio minister Dr Christopher Tufton announced that no more Pfizer vaccines would be given as of September 15. This followed an announcement from the minister on September 9 that sites would stop offering the vaccine the following day. The Government still has no firm date for the arrival of the next shipment of Pfizer vaccines from the United States.

So far, only 291,050 people or 10.3 per cent of the Jamaican population, are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and just over 510,00 have received a first dose. Bryan said in order to reach the March 2022 target of 1.9 million people, about 15,000 need to be vaccinated daily.