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BACOLOD CITY, Philippines – Too much of a good thing can turn bad.
In the case of Negros Occidental’s premier city, the highly-praised COVID-19 vaccination program of former mayor Bing Leonardia ended with more than 300,000 doses of unused AstraZeneca vaccines expiring in a Department of Health (DOH) cold storage facility in Metro Manila.
The reason: Leonardia’s administration purchased hundreds of thousands of doses, but also hustled for the city’s share from the national government stockpile. It ended up with too much supply even as it chalked up Western Visayas’ best vaccination record.
Now, Mayor Albee Benitez, the city’s new chief executive, and Leonardia’s campaign spokesman are squabbling about the P98 million owed the pharmaceutical firm for the expired vaccines and another 134,000 doses set to expire at the end of July.
Benitez at a press conference on Monday, July 11, said an AstraZeneca representative reported that the Leonardia administration had ordered 650,000 doses in all.
It paid an initial P65 million and still had a P98 million balance, the pharmaceutical representative told the new mayor.
But Benitez said city health office records showed that only 216,000 doses arrived in the city.
These were fully utilized by a local government that had received praise for being among the pioneers of making vaccine rounds in villages and markets, corporate workplaces, and extending vaccination hours in areas where the most vulnerable sectors of the local population gathered.
The AstraZeneca representative told Benitez they delivered the remaining doses late in 2021 to the DOH, but were told the city already had enough stocks.
Benitez said when he asked why the delivery was so late, the pharma rep said the contract did not specify delivery dates.
The new mayor raised the possibility of the city over-ordering.
The problem, however, may be a bit more complex than Benitez’s theory.
Duterte’s chaotic pandemic response
Many highly-urbanized local government units (LGUs), not just Bacolod City, opted to purchase their own vaccine supplies in a bid to skirt around the national government’s chaotic policies and preference for the Chinese brand Sinovac.
But when they ordered, the national government said they would all still have to fall in line as all deliveries and redistribution would be centralized.
Later, then-president Rodrigo Duterte encouraged LGUs to help the national government by ordering their own supplies.
In fact, many of the biggest and richest LGUs had gone on to secure their orders while the national government was still scrambling to find its supplies.
But his national COVID-19 task force, controlled largely by generals, insisted on centralizing receipt and redistribution of vaccine stocks. The policy details covering the tripartite agreements also rolled out at a slow pace.
Vaccine czar Carlito Galvez Jr said in January 2021 that the national government would still be responsible for ensuring that second- or third-class municipalities would receive vaccines for their communities, along with prioritizing distribution across the country. (READ: Securing vaccine deals: A checklist for local governments)
Although Bacolod City had ordered vaccines from AstraZeneca, officials lobbied hard for a share of the national government’s purchases, especially during the Delta-variant-fueled surge in September 2021.
With record case numbers – and deaths – both Bacolod and Iloilo City, medical centers that took in the worst cases from outlying towns and cities, begged and pleaded for more vaccines.
While the head of the Corazon Locsin Montelibano Memorial Regional Hospital (CLMMRH) Dr. Julius Drilon was a fierce critic of the city’s testing and isolation policies, he acknowledged its vaccination performance.
The CLMMRH chief said the COVID-19 deaths were due to a dearth in vaccines.
“There is disparity or inequality in the vaccine distribution,” he said.
“In fairness to our LGU officials, once the vaccines were available, they also utilized us hospitals to vaccinate the different categories of the population,” Drilon said.
The mid-2021 surge started around June, also around the time as neighboring Thailand announced possible limits on the number of AstraZeneca doses that would be shipped abroad, owing to a lack of supply for its own needs.
It wasn’t so much negligence by the Bacolod LGU but a combination of factors outside of its control that led to so much unused vaccines.
In April 2022, the DOH acknowledged that 27 million doses of vaccines in the country would be expiring in July.
Undersecretary Myrna Cabotaje explained that the vaccines arrived during the last two months of 2021 and in January 2022, including the ones procured by the private sector, the local government, as well as donations.
To pay or not to pay
Benitez has told AstraZeneca, “You will have to excuse me, I will try to the best of my ability not to pay you.”
Chris Sorongon, spokesman of Leonardia and a former deputy in the city’s Emergency Operations Center Task Force, called the tripartite agreement between the city government, the Department of Health, and AstraZeneca “a contractual obligation that must be honored.”
He said the city’s purchases were “upon the prodding of the previous national government when vaccine supply was a scarcity.”
The expired vaccines, Sorongon said, “are with DOH central facility of which we have no control of and form part of the multi- lateral agreement between the national government, represented by DOH, AZ, and Bacolod City.”
At least 27 other cities and provinces in the country entered similar tripartite deals with AstraZeneca at a time when there was very limited supply of vaccines worldwide, he added.
All supplies delivered earlier by the DOH (all brands included) have been administered by the EOC and medical frontliners of the COVID-19 Vaccination Council, resulting in a 136% vaccination rate for Bacolod, the highest in the whole of Region VI (Western Visayas) as certified by the DOH and reflected in the daily SITREP, Sorongon stressed..
Before Leonardia stepped down, he left a city with an impressive 146% vaccination coverage for its target adult population.
Even during the December 2021 DOH Bayanihan vaccine drive, the city zoomed past its target.
Bacolod’s purchase of 650,000 doses is more than what the Department of Health Western Visayas’ daily COVID-19 tracker notes as its 590,174 population.
But that, too, is not unique to the city.
Like Iloilo City in Panay island, Bacolod’s workforce includes a substantial number of non-residents, estimated at more than 100,000.
Both cities opened their vaccine programs to these workers and other transients who do regular business in the city. Cebu City did the same.
It was a logical move for these cities that also took in COVID-19 cases outlying hospitals could not manage.
Iloilo City Mayor Jerry Treñas has found himself in similar trouble with critics questioning his big order of vaccines.
The cases of the two cities hailed for their vaccination program success are similar.
In March 2022, the city health office announced that the city received 183,300 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine as of December 28, 2021, out of 600,000 that it had procured.
Iloilo City has already fully-vaccinated all of its eligible adult population, 89.36% of teens, and 66.2% of its senior citizens with supply from the national government, hence the oversupply of vaccines created by the tripartite deal with AstraZeneca signed late 2020.
“The procurement of vaccines thru the tripartite agreement was facilitated by the national government. It was done at a time when there was no assurance of supply coming from the national government, thus, as part of the emergency powers granted to chief executives and the necessity and urgency to make Bacolodnons safe from COVID, the LGU entered into this multi-partite agreement to buy vaccines,” said Sorongon,.
“Any forward thinking manager and seasoned crisis manager would do the same. We were among the first outside of Metro Manila to do this. Had we not resorted to this, I doubt it if Bacolod had achieved its very high vaccination rate as it has today,” Sorongon said. – Rappler.com