Amid high levels of vaccine hesitancy, vaccine preference and the recent dumping of tens of thousands of vials of the potentially lifesaving shots due to low take-up among Jamaicans, the first sign of division within the Government on its vaccination policy has emerged.
The dissenting voice is no less a person than that of Juliet Holness, the Member of Parliament for St Andrew East Rural and wife of Prime Minister Andrew Holness.
Mrs Holness on Tuesday publicly rapped the Ministry of Health and Wellness (MOHW) for reversing itself on who should receive the Pfizer vaccine, the only one to have received approval for children.
She made her disapproval known before the Parliament’s Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC) where she said the decision of the Dr Christopher Tufton-led MOHW contributed to the poor vaccine take up in the country. She took issue with the fact that the ministry changed course on its original decision that was communicated to the public, that the Pfizer vaccine would be administered only to children and adolescents between the ages of 12 and 18.
Since it is the only vaccine to date that is approved for this age group, the Ministry of Education was hoping that if enough secondary school age students were vaccinated (its target is 65 per cent) then there could shortly be a return to face-to-face classes.
However, shortly after 208,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine arrived in Jamaica on August 19 it was soon made available to adults also.
That decision, Mrs Holness suggested, led to the poor take up of the AstraZeneca brand, thus contributing to over 50,000 doses which expired at midnight last Thursday being dumped. The two-term MP cited that her best efforts to encourage persons to take the AstraZeneca vaccine were thwarted by the MOHW for opening up the Pfizer to all and sundry.
“I had to be encouraging people (to) take AstraZeneca instead of Pfizer which was designated by the government for children and I was quite surprised to see individuals from the ministry of health comfortably dispensing Pfizer, knowing that we had AstraZeneca coming up with close (expiration) dates, one and two, knowing that we would not have enough Pfizer to do the second dose for our children. Somebody needs to explain that to us first and foremost,” Mrs Holness stated.
By September 10 the government had announced that it was suspending the administration of the Pfizer vaccination as it awaited fresh doses from the United States. Those doses are yet to arrive in the country.
The about-turn by the MOHW, according to Mrs Holness, has contributed to confusion among the populace.
“Because what we dumped in AstraZeneca we could have comfortably used to give persons their first dose and we would have been in a better place to be able to give the second dose required to persons who should have gotten the Pfizer vaccine,” she argued.
According to her, “One of the things that need to be done…when a policy direction is set it needs to be adhered to because it causes a lot of confusion afterwards”.
Despite coming out against her own administration, Mrs Holness is urging Jamaicans to take the available vaccines as the country is not yet back to normal.
“We are recovering yes but we are not there yet and as such we will still have challenges with having to fund the healthcare element in the extent of as much as $10 billion more and fund other government programmes …but Jamaicans cannot relax and figure that they do not need to get vaccinated, they do not need to go back to normalcy because in not going back all these gains will be reversed,” she warned.