Eastern Cape concerned about Covid-19 vaccine rollout in far-flung areas

Schools are seen as good distribution points for vaccinations as most communities have them close by and they are therefore accessible.
Schools are seen as good distribution points for vaccinations as most communities have them close by and they are therefore accessible.
Image: Sergey Chayko

The Eastern Cape government has expressed concern that it may encounter problems with vaccination distribution to far-flung areas of the province.

Acting head of the provincial health department Dr Sibongile Zungu said they were considering using schools as vaccination sites because a large proportion of the province's population cannot access health-care facilities within a 5km radius of where they live.

Zungu told parliament's health portfolio committee on Wednesday that of the 24,494 communities in SA, the inhabitants of 6,328 of them had to travel more than 5km to reach a health-care facility to be vaccinated. She said 2,873, or 45%, of these communities were in the Eastern Cape.

Schools, said Zungu, were a good option because most communities had them nearby.

“We are looking for guidance from the national department of health as to the safety requirements for vaccination rollout, so that we can start accrediting spaces to be used to ensure that communities will be within 5km of a site,” she said.

Zungu said about 200,000 health-care and related workers have been earmarked for vaccination during the first phase of the vaccination process. About 60,000 of them are employees of the provincial health department and the others are support staff, including scientists and health workers at NGOs.

The province's estimation is that it will need to vaccinate about 3.7 million people who are over 18, which is about 67% of its population.

The province has set a target of 1.5 million vaccinations for the second phase, which will be, in the main, for essential workers, people over 60, people with underlying health conditions that increase their risk of severe Covid-19, and people in congregate settings such as prisons.

The rest of the over-18 population (about two million people) will be vaccinated during the third phase, said Zungu.

She said the province has devised a detailed plan in terms of the vaccine rollout, which was looking at the spread of the population in the province. A task team had also been appointed and it was guiding districts on how to structure their own teams.

Zungu admitted that they had challenges in the province that had been there for many years, some of which relate to the rural nature of the Eastern Cape, infrastructure backlogs, and the dwindling budgets in the health sector in general that affect those provinces that are not starting from the zero line.

“The Eastern Cape starts from a minus point and has to catch up to arrive at the zero point where everybody else is starting and in terms of then moving from that point, it lags behind,” said Zungu.

MPs suggested that the provincial government was hiding behind historic issues in the province and infrastructure backlogs for a failure to mount a decent response to the pandemic.

As of Tuesday, the Eastern Cape had 182,507 cases, 9,036 Covid-19 related deaths and 1,705 hospital admissions. The province has a recovery rate of 91% and its positivity rate is 24.4%

MPs heard that its infections for the second wave seemed to peak around the middle of December but the rise in the new infections was happening at different districts at different times, making the second wave appear broader and a bit longer than the first wave.

The major contributors to the epidemic in the province were the Nelson Mandela Bay municipality and the Sarah Baartman district municipality. President Cyril Ramaphosa's cabinet declared the two municipalities hotspots at the beginning of December.

Zungu said the two districts accounted for almost 70%-80% of the new cases in the province at the beginning of December. But the province was on a decline with only one district — the Joe Gqabi district municipality — where cases were still on the rise.

The Nelson Mandela Bay municipality is continuing to record the most deaths in the province, followed by Buffalo City Metro and Chris Hani district.

MPs heard that 9,249 health workers have tested positive in the province and that 161 had died from the coronavirus.

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