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Jab campaign ramps up: Eastern Cape in talks to use schools as vaccination centres 

Jab campaign ramps up: Eastern Cape in talks to use schools as vaccination centres 
An elderly couple leave a vaccination site in the Eastern Cape. (Photo: Black Star Images / Spotlight)

Discussions have started with the Department of Education to use schools as vaccination sites in preparation for the 1 September roll-out for those 18 years and above, the head of the Eastern Cape Health Department, Dr Rolene Wagner, said on Tuesday.

The Eastern Cape Department of Health is in discussions with the Department of Basic Education to use schools as vaccination sites when registration opens for the 18-34 age group at the beginning of September.

The head of the health department, Dr Rolene Wagner, said she also wanted university campuses and colleges to be used. Nelson Mandela University in Gqeberha is already a vaccination site for the wider community, she said.

Wagner said she was delighted when the Eastern Cape was singled out by the Minister of Health, Joe Phaahla, as the province that has vaccinated the largest percentage of its population (around 24%).

“The Eastern Cape, being predominantly rural, has many of our communities located in far-flung, often hard-to-reach locations. The vaccination programme has thus to accommodate the [rural nature of the province] and be responsive in a highly constrained environment,” Wagner said.

The health department is currently struggling with severe budgetary constraints due to soaring medico-legal payouts and a high salary bill for non-medical personnel.

The Eastern Cape saw a devastating second Covid-19 wave between October and December last year when a new variant of the coronavirus, now known as the Beta variant, was first identified in Nelson Mandela Bay. Coupled with the first wave, the death toll in the province was among the highest in the world. 

Now, Wagner says, the department is already seeing a marked impact due to their vaccination efforts. 

“In our province, we have noticed lower admission rates compared to the first two waves, and lower numbers of deaths thus far.”

Wagner, who has been in the position of department head for less than three weeks, said she was elated by this early win.

“There are two main reasons for this early success – the first being the coordinated and collaborative approach to the vaccination and resurgence management programme in the Eastern Cape,” she said. 

“There is political will driving and ensuring coordination between the provincial and municipal arms of government and between government and our key stakeholders, NGO and community organisations, business, and religious and other social structures. 

“The second reason is the strategic approach adopted by the Eastern Cape. The vaccination programme has been two-pronged: targeting those most at risk, such as those over 60 years, as well as the hot-spots in the province, and also improving access to the vaccination services by increasing the number of sites, ensuring appropriate placement of the sites and expanding the hours the service can be accessed,” she said.

“The department, assisted by our partners, is implementing an outreach programme, particularly in our rural areas, so that we can reach those communities that may have difficulty getting to our fixed services. The vaccination of the province’s educators has also been successful, with over 63,000 educators vaccinated to date,” Wagner added.

She said in the last 14 days, the Eastern Cape health department has added 157 new sites, bringing the total to 1,246 sites that act as vaccination points. The number of community and church halls being used as temporary sites has been expanded and now stands at 191.

“These are places where our citizens gather socially and are thus natural convergence points. The retailers and taxi ranks are other high traffic areas, so our weekend sites and pop-up sites are focused on those at this time… at 46 shopping centres, taxi ranks and other tactical points,” she said.

“So many lives were sadly lost to Covid-19 during both waves, including those of our healthcare workers. The lives of many families have been disrupted, socially and economically, either infected by the virus or affected by the lockdown. Certainly, this and the high morbidity and mortality rates experienced in the first two waves has likely influenced decisions to get vaccinated,” she said.

“We have been incredibly blessed to have so many strategic partners who have stepped forward to assist the government in our efforts. With respect to the vaccination roll-out, we are deeply appreciative of organisations such as the Solidarity Fund, TB/HIV Care, Beyond Zero, Right to Care, the DG Murray Trust, clinical operator partners, Discovery, Khethempilo and Aurum, among others. 

“Amongst the retailers on board in Mbizana are the Rhino wholesalers and SuperSpar. Several other retailers have been approached and are coming on board, so we are hopeful that this list will continue expanding.

“There are three critical elements to keep the momentum going. The first being that our citizens need to opt-in to be vaccinated. There are many ways to self-register, so that the process at the vaccine site flows quicker, but we welcome walk-ins at our sites. We are set up to assist our people to be registered on-site and receive their vaccination, at the same site, on that same day.

“The programme will be implemented in a phased approach and the process of identifying additional sites and engagement of retail managers is already underway.”

“Unfortunately, vaccine hesitancy appears to be a pervasive challenge, globally and in our country. Understandably, our citizens are concerned about how safe and effective the vaccines are. The vaccines being used in South Africa have been proven through research to protect against severe disease, hospitalisation and death. In countries where they have achieved high levels of vaccination in the community, they have opened up their economies and been able to return to higher levels of social interaction. 

“We will thus be increasing social media marketing and communication to increase demand for vaccination,” said Wagner.

“The second key element is to ramp up the number of sites in the province. Funded by the Solidarity Fund, two mass vaccination sites will be established in Nelson Mandela Metro and Buffalo City Metro. Clinical operators, Discovery and Aurum, have been identified to support the operations of the two sites. 

“Both sites are expected to administer 3,000 to 5,000 vaccinations a day. The two mass vaccination sites in the two metros are expected to be operational by 31 August. An additional proposal has been sent to the Solidarity Fund to activate a third mass vaccination site in the OR Tambo region (around Mthatha).

“In terms of the expansion of pop-up sites, supported by the Solidarity Fund, two retail temporary sites, Rhino Wholesale and SuperSpar Butterworth, will be activated on 18 August in Mbizana. The clinical operators for these sites are Khethimpilo and Aurum. There is a plan to expand these sites in the four districts of OR Tambo, Amathole (including large parts of the former Transkei, but also Bedford and Adelaide), Joe Gqabi (around Aliwal North) and Alfred Nzo (in the deep, rural part of the province). 

“The programme will be implemented in a phased approach and the process of identifying additional sites and engagement of retail managers is already underway,” she said.

Wagner added that workplace vaccinations were going well. 

“A call has been made by the premier to Volkswagen to support activation of three sites in the Nelson Mandela Metro and six mobile/outreach sites in Sara Baartman district (that includes large parts of the Karoo) to vaccinate their employees and their families. We welcome other workplace programmes to come on board. For public servants of all eligible age groups, the department is working with GEMS, through the office of the premier, to activate more sites. The Metropolitan site in the Nelson Mandela Metro has the capacity to vaccinate 500 to 1,000 public servants per day, as it has ten vaccinators available for the programme.”

She said the department has started training 795 basic health science students to be deployed to vaccination sites.

“The plan is to deploy them to our sites as vaccinators, which will allow us to vaccinate more persons at these sites. The pharmacy students at Rhodes University will be available to assist with logistics and mixing of vaccines at identified sites. We have a database of 35 volunteers and welcome more colleagues from the private primary care sector to enrol and be trained, so that they can augment our vaccinator workforce,” Wagner said.

She said they were satisfied there would be enough vaccines for their expansion strategy.

“Our target is 42,000 vaccinations per day by September. We call on the people of the Eastern Cape to come forward and get vaccinated. Together we can triumph so that we can all get back to work, back to school and resume our social activities.” DM/MC


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