The man charged with leading Jamaica's efforts to get sufficient quantities of the COVID-19 vaccines, National Health Fund (NHF) Chairman Howard Mitchell, is confident that the island is past the time of a general shortage of vaccines, but remains peeved about the process of distributing the jabs and aspects of the Government's approach to fighting the virus.
In welcoming the COVID-19 Task Force established by the Government, Mitchell reiterated his concerns about the process of distributing the vaccine and expressed hope that this new body will ensure major changes.
“Nobody can deny that people are severely inconvenienced when they go to take the vaccine. People have to be waiting five and six hours to get vaccinated. Some people want the vaccine and I think it is important that we make it convenient and as easy as possible for them to get it,” Mitchell told the Jamaica Observer.
He was even more biting in his criticism of the authorities who, he says, have failed to address the movement of Jamaicans who rely on the public transportation system during the COVID-19 crisis.
“I really don't see why we cannot accept the staggering of work hours as a means of reducing congestion on public transport. It makes sense where, for instance, the banking sector could open at 7:00 am and close at 3:00 pm, while manufacturers could have a different opening and closing time. That way you would have less crowding on the public transportation system,” said Mitchell as he argued that this is a proposal he is confident the trade unions would support.
“I don't see an analytical approach being taken to public transportation where you would say, 'Half-Way-Tree is a congested area, let us put on as many buses as possible in peak time to reduce the crowding of people.'
“We need to be considerate of our people's convenience and the exposure. I really think we need to take a national approach to this thing rather than a territorial public health, private sector mistrust when people are dying. That is the plea that I am putting out there as a private citizen of Jamaica.
“Jamaica has always been able to come out of crisis by using cooperation, by coming together, and it is time to do it now or else COVID is going to shut us down as an economy and continue to hurt us,” declared Mitchell.
The NHF chairman expressed confidence that the country will have sufficient vaccines for its needs as he called for the measures to slow the spread of the virus.
“I don't think that we are going to have a general shortage of vaccines again, but I think that, like every other product in the world today, you are going to have supply line interruptions and we are just going to have to work around that,” said Mitchell as he used as an example the delay in getting additional doses of the Pfizer vaccine into the island causing the health ministry to suspend issuing second doses which are now due.
“I know that people are anxious about that, but my understating, from the medical experts, is that you can pass the three weeks recommended for the second dose to as much as six weeks, and I am sure that within that time frame we will have sufficient Pfizer on hand to accommodate second doses,” added Mitchell.
“I can't tell you how much vaccines we have in the inventory as once we get it to Jamaica we turn it over to the Ministry of Health, but I can tell you that in the last two months we imported approximately 1.1 million doses of vaccines.
“My information is that we have vaccinated about 705,000 people with at least one dose, so I would assume we have some 300,000 doses in stock. In addition to that we have a contract with the African Medical Supplies Platform for the supply of approximately 200,000 doses of Johnson & Johnson vaccines monthly for the next eight or nine months, so that is a constant,” Mitchell told the Observer.
He pointed out that through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade Jamaica has a commitment for the delivery of 600,000 doses of Pfizer vaccines from the United States with 200,000 doses already delivered and the next shipment of 200,000 doses is expected shortly.
“The National Health Fund is not involved in that particular supply commitment. We will receive it when it comes in; we will clear it through Customs, and we will take it to our warehouse for the Ministry of Health to pick it up from there,” said Mitchell as he commended private sector entities T Geddes Grant and Facey Commodity for providing the Government with special cold containers to store up to 400,000 dozes of the Pfizer vaccines at one time at the required temperature.
Turning to the supply of AstraZeneca vaccines, Mitchell said the Government of the United Kingdom has indicated its willingness to supply approximately 60,000 more doses, while another 300,000-plus doses of this vaccine should come into the island through the programme for sharing COVID-19 vaccines around the world, dubbed COVAX (COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access Facility).
According to Mitchell, there should also be an adequate supply of Johnson & Johnson vaccines with a total of 1.9 million doses already expected to arrive in the island.
“The National Health Fund has instructions from the Government to continue to look out to buy Pfizer vaccines, and if possible Moderna vaccines. Up to now we have had no success with the Moderna for reasons which I think are involved with their commitment to supply the United States first before they supply elsewhere,” said Mitchell.
But he underscored that the NHF remains in the international market to purchase small quantities of the Moderna vaccine to satisfy specialist needs locally.
Mitchell said the Government has also contracted to purchase 100,000 doses of the Chinese Sinovac vaccine and these should be in the island within the next 30 days.