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Vaccine concern

Even as the Government this week shaved close to $49 million from the budget for its vaccine roll-out and take-up programme amidst public outcry, Health and Wellness Minister Dr Christopher Tufton is citing concern about acceptance levels across the country, including among front-line health workers.

Yesterday, Dr Tufton, during a briefing staged by the ministry, again dismissed reports that the Government had planned to fork out $422 million of taxpayers’ money to fund a marketing programme and public education programme in a bid to convince Jamaicans to roll up their sleeves for the COVID-19 vaccines.

While outlining the cuts made as a result of the backlash, the minister wasted no time in pointing out that he was not happy with the decision and emphasised that no one firm or entity was set to benefit.

“There was never any $422 million that was assigned to communications,” he insisted. “There was a series of allocations under the COVID vaccine plan that covered a range of areas dealing with risk mitigation, which spoke to itemised allocations that could not be interpreted as traditional public relations or communication, but would have the impact of influencing behaviours towards encouraging the vaccine take-up,” he said.

Dr Tufton said the challenges of scepticism and hesitancy have not abated despite those areas now being shaved.

“There is likely to be a challenge, not in all segments, but you raised the issue of public health workers and we have been doing some work already at the level of the institutions, through the regional authorities, to gauge health workers’ perception and willingness to take up the vaccine. And we are hovering around 30 to 40 per cent in some instances, in a few instances it goes higher,” the health minister disclosed.

“One would think that they are the most exposed to the virus because of front-line work, and they would be the most willing, but this is not always the case, and it is not only a Jamaica problem, to be frank. As you move through the population, the other younger people, and so on, you might find that challenge getting a lot more intense,” he said further.

The ministry, in its National COVID-19 Vaccine Deployment and Vaccination Interim Plan presented earlier this year said the first phase of the roll-out would cater to the vaccination of vulnerable and priority groups in the population. The second phase would see the introduction of the vaccine to the general public. It further said a recent survey suggested that 35 per cent of Jamaicans said they would take the vaccine.

The ministry said “with a robust communication plan this figure should increase”, adding “micro planning is required at each phase to ensure that that figure is pushed closer to 100 per cent”.

Yesterday, however, Dr Tufton said, while the issue of hesitancy was not one to be taken lightly or devalued in recognition of public concerns, as well as new and emerging issues such as the spike in hospitalisations, it was necessary to revisit the provision.

“We do have a finite budget. So let us see what happens. There is still room for tweaking, depending on whether there is a need to go further in an area versus another area. We measure it and gauge it as we go along, but there are challenges that we still have to confront, even after getting the vaccines,” he said.

As it stands, of the just over $840 million allocated under the plan, adjustments have been made. He said the consulting firm One Integrated, which was contracted for 12 months, has now had its engagement reduced by three months, resulting in savings of $5.5 million.

“Rather than the $22 million, they are now at $16.49 million,” he said.

Meanwhile, the vaccination training session for staff that was assigned $19.3 million is now down to $14.33 million, while the $64 million for placement of public education ads on radio and television has been reduced to $50 million.

The printing of materials such as brochures and pamphlets, for which $36.2 million had been set aside, has been trimmed to $26.2 million, while the planned public education session series, which would have cost $27.8 million, now stands at $20 million. For research, $6 million has been shaved from the original $36.2 million allocated.

In the meantime, Tufton yesterday said there is uncertainty as to whether the doses which were expected through the COVAX facility this month-end will arrive at that time, as promised.

Jamaica, at last mention, was on stream to get between 146,400 and 249,600 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine through the facility towards the end of this month to inoculate approximately 125,000 citizens.

This is part of a larger plan announced by the Government last week that additional funds had been sourced which would see two million Jamaicans receiving the vaccine over the course of the new fiscal year, which means the country would attain herd immunity at the end of the period.

“It is really difficult. As much as I would like to provide specific dates…I will wait until we get confirmation of the shipment. We think it will happen, but the question is the time period,” Dr Tufton said.

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