The Philippine government is using its full force to mount a three-day nationwide vaccine drive it hopes will push the country closer to its vaccination targets by the end of 2021.
National and local officials said over 160,000 volunteers across 11,000 vaccination centers will be mobilized to administer 38 million doses the government had set aside to reach 15 million people from Monday, November 29, to Wednesday, December 1.
A presidential order declared the three-day stretch as “special working days,” providing workers from both the public and private sector the leeway to leave work to receive their COVID-19 vaccines.
The massive sweep, which will cover all 17 regions, is the biggest move the government has taken to push all eligible individuals aged 12 years old and above to vaccine sites.
Vaccine czar Carlito Galvez said on Sunday, November 28, that government officials wanted to administer at least 9 million jabs as first doses during the event, while a followup event to complete second doses has been scheduled for December 15 to 17.
Galvez said this could boost efforts by government to reach 70% of its target population or roughly 54 million Filipinos by December 31. Since launching its vaccine drive on March 1, vaccinations had been slow in the Philippines, with just 46% of the targeted 77 million Filipinos fully vaccinated as of November 28.
“We are expecting that once we finish our first dosing here…in the national vaccine days, once this goes up, we can rally this coming December. And we expect the number [of vaccinees] to be even higher,” Galvez told reporters in a press briefing.
Risks remain in the country. Although infections have decreased in recent weeks, the World Health Organization’s classification of a new variant of concern, Omicron, on Friday, November 26, sent governments scrambling to lock down borders.
On Sunday, Philippine pandemic officials held an emergency meeting and decided to expand the country’s travel ban to cover not only South Africa – where the variant was first reported – and several other African countries, but also European countries where the variant had been found.
News of the variant stoked fresh fears even as the Philippines only recently emerged from its deadliest phase in the health crisis. Cases surged from early July and had only started to ease in late October.
In mid-September, daily cases peaked to nearly 30,000 and a record-high average of 218 people died daily during the month. There have been no cases with the Omicron variant detected in the country yet.
“With the coming of the Omicron, we want to make sure that our focused targets, the A1 (health workers) to A3 (persons with comorbidities), the most vulnerable are covered…. During the onslaught of the Delta [variant], we saw that most of the casualties and severe cases were 75 to 85% unvaccinated,” Galvez said.
Health officials strongly urged the public to take advantage of the national vaccine days to get their COVID-19 shot. Nearly 10 months into the vaccine rollout, only about 32% of the country’s total 110 million population have been fully vaccinated.
Steep challenges also lie ahead. Although all individuals aged 12 years old and above have been cleared to get vaccinated, a sizable portion of the population has remained hesitant to get the shot. Officials sought to entice more vaccinations using a family-centered approach where multigenerational households could get jabbed together in time for the holiday season.
Meanwhile, logistical hurdles also forced the government to adjust its expectations. The nationwide vaccine drive had initially set out to inoculate at least 15 million people in three days with first doses, but a shortage of supplies – particularly syringes for Pfizer’s vaccine – forced the government to lower its target to 9 million.
If pandemic officials manage to hit even its low-end targets in the coming days, the Philippines could mark a milestone by fully vaccinating at least 40% of its total population in 2021 – a goal the WHO earlier urged countries to achieve.
The Philippines has already set out to reach a “realistic” target of seeing 50% of its total population fully vaccinated by the end of the year. After this, Galvez said health officials want to see 70% of the population vaccinated by the May 2022 elections, and about 90% by mid-2022.
But beyond their many goalposts, public and private sector officials have hinged their hopes of recovery and return to normalcy on vaccines.
“Our call to all our countrymen, especially those who have not yet gotten the vaccine, is to get vaccinated,” Galvez said. “Be a hero to your families and your communities. Get the COVID-19 jab now so we can have a better and safer Christmas.” – Rappler.com