Sun | Jan 16, 2022

Editorial | Offer COVID-19 booster shots

Published:Friday | December 3, 2021 | 12:06 AM

The AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine.
The AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine.

If activity at Jamaica’s COVID-19 vaccination centres is a basis for drawing conclusions, then the island’s health authorities may soon be forced to discard tens of thousands more doses of the inoculants. At some centres, such as the one at the Andrews Memorial Hospital in Kingston one afternoon this week, there are more staff than candidates for vaccinations.

The island’s vaccine hesitancy is also evident in the data. The take-up is slow. Up to Monday of this week, only 17 per cent of Jamaicans were fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, having received either both doses of a two-dose vaccine, or having been jabbed with the single-dose Johnson & Johnson product. Another 23 per cent are partially vaccinated, receiving the first dose of a drug, where two doses are necessary.

Up-to-date figures for outstanding jabs are not immediately available, but officials concede that many people in the partially vaccinated group are long overdue for their second shots – and not because there is a shortage of the drugs, which are available. Indeed, at the start of October, the health minister, Christopher Tufton, reported that Jamaica had more than 568,000 of usable vaccines on hand. Yet, the number of fully or partially vaccinated people has jumped substantially since then. The delays in taking second jabs are apparently deliberate.

Many thousands of vaccine doses may be heading for their best-by date without being used, repeating what happened at the end of September and October, when 56,000 and 185,000 units, respectively, of AstraZeneca vaccines had to be dumped. The estimated value of the drugs was over $100 million.

SHOULD NOT ALLOW WASTAGE

The Government should not allow this waste to happen again. At least, not to the same extent as previously. It should be aggressively offering booster shots to willing Jamaicans. This would be good for public health and the economy, but, surprisingly, appears not to be on the health ministry’s agenda.

So far, more than 91,000 Jamaicans have been infected with COVID-19. Approximately 2,400 of them have died from the virus. The island only recently emerged from a third wave of the epidemic, which pushed the health system to the brink. There are warnings that a fourth wave is inevitable. COVID-19 has severely stressed the economy as well as social life.

This situation of periodic lockdowns and lost productivity to slow the virus is not sustainable over the long term. The obvious best answer to the crisis is vaccination. The available vaccines are known to have great efficacy in preventing people from contracting the virus, and if they do get it from becoming seriously ill, of being hospitalised or dying.

It is also true that while the vaccines remain a good defence against COVID-19, their effectiveness declines over time, especially against some mutating strains, such as the now dominant Delta variety. There are some ‘breakthrough’ cases of vaccinated people becoming affected, although usually with less serious illness than people who are not vaccinated. Scientists are seeking to determine the efficacy of the vaccines against the newly emerged Omicron strain.

But long before Omicron, public health officials in the United States and Europe were promoting booster shots for their citizens of all ages, but especially the elderly and people with comorbidities. Boosters are generally recommended after a minimum of six months after a person was fully vaccinated.

OPEN SOURCE

Jamaica generally takes its cue from the World Health Organization on the science around, and the management of, COVID-19. However, on the matter of booster shots the science is open source, access to which Jamaica’s public health experts and epidemiologists should need no directives. In addition to information from other countries, they should have the benefit of their own research and analysis of COVID-19 patients in the island’s hospitals. It would be a shame if that wasn’t the case.

In these circumstances, the only concern of health officials on administering booster shots to willing people who are already vaccinated, is whether this would deprive unvaccinated people the opportunity of inoculation. That seems very unlikely in the face of the sustained vaccine hesitancy, which the health authorities should prove – or disprove – with the data, including the expiry dates on the various batches of vaccines now in stock.

It would be better if they are used on people who would have them, rather than go to waste. People who want, and are willing to have the protection of the vaccines should not be held back by the rest – which is what Prime Minister Andrew Holness promised when he warned of the possibility of mandates, or the probability of limitations on certain types of access by the unvaccinated.