The Philippines must stick to the agreed priority to vaccinate medical front-liners, seniors and those with co-morbidities first to ensure the unhampered supply of COVID-19 vaccines from the COVAX Facility, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned Thursday.
The warning came as the Department of Health said it would investigate instances where people not on the priority list have already received their shots—such as Interior Undersecretary Jonathan Malaya and Quezon Rep. Helen Tan, Pasay City Vice Mayor Noel Del Rosario and Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) Chief of Staff Michael Salalima.
About 4.58 million AstraZeneca vaccine doses are expected to arrive in the Philippines within the year under COVAX Facility, making the country one of the largest recipients of jabs through the global vaccine-sharing platform.
The country is also set to receive some 117,000 Pfizer-BioNTech jabs and an additional batch, the figures of which would be announced by end of March 2021.
“To access these vaccines, WHO and the COVAX Facility, and that includes its donor partners and members, have emphasized that COVAX vaccines should be used according to the prioritizations,” WHO Representative to the Philippines Dr. Rabindra Abeyasinghe said in an online press briefing.
He added that Manila must also demonstrate that it can roll out the vaccines in an efficient manner while minimizing wastage.
The prioritized groups he mentioned include some 1.8 million Filipino health care workers who are among the most at risk in the still-raging pandemic.
This is followed by the most vulnerable population — the elderly and those suffering from co-morbidities, where high case fatality rates were previously recorded.
“If we cannot demonstrate that we are following this prioritization, unfortunately, the COVAX may have to consider other options where the impact of the vaccine rollout will be more useful and practical and will contribute to saving more lives,” Abeyasinghe said.
“So we urge everybody concerned to kindly respect the prioritization that has been defined by the DOH (Department of Health) and the NITAG (National Immunization Technical Advisory Group) in consultation with the WHO,” he added.
The WHO will not police the list, leaving the role of ensuring adherence to the DOH, he said.
In the same briefing, Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire acknowledged the conditions set by the COVAX Facility to align with WHO’s objective to give the shots “to those who needed the most — the health care workers”.
She urged the public and all stakeholders to stay within the inoculation framework.
“If we violate these objectives and do not give the vaccines to the right people or health workers, this could jeopardize the succeeding supplies coming from the COVAX Facility,” she said in a mix of Filipino and English.
Vaccine czar Carlito Galvez Jr. on Thursday said they will investigate the case of Quezon Rep. Helen Tan, who jumped the line when she got herself vaccinated with Sinovac’s COVID-19 vaccine.
Tans said she was part of her son’s allocation for his family at the Veterans Memorial Medical Center, where he is a surgeon, but Galvez told radio dzBB there is no such directive for now.
“That’s wrong,” he said in Filipino. “Our priority is all the medical front-liners. The 1.7 million front-liners must be vaccinated first.”
“There are no provisions for dependents,” he added. “There aren’t enough vaccines, so that’s wrong. We will investigate that case.”
Health Secretary Francisco Duque III said they need 3.4 million doses for the 1.7 million health care workers but so far, only 600,000 doses have arrived. “So that’s only 17 percent, so we are lacking,” he told radio dzBB. “We really need to follow the prioritization formula.”
Reports on Wednesday said Interior and Local Government spokesperson Undersecretary Jonathan Malaya received the vaccine at Pasay City General Hospital.
Malaya said he can be considered a front-liner considering that DILG officials always go outside to do their duty in the department. He said he was advised by his doctor to get the shot against COVID-19.
“We at the DILG can also be considered as front-liners because you see us going out every day. Government officials need to get vaccinated first to boost our vaccine confidence” he added.
Pasay City Vice Mayor Noel Del Rosario and MMDA Chief of Staff Michael Salalima also received the vaccine.
At Sta. Ana Hospital in Manila, Manila Vice Mayor Honey Lacuna-Pangan, who is also a doctor, got the shot to convince the public to get vaccinated.
President Rodrigo Duterte has allowed the vaccination of only three officials: National Task Force against COVID-19 (NTF) chief implementer and vaccine czar Galvez, NTF deputy chief Vince Dizon, and MMDA chairman Benhur Abalos.
Malacañang said they want those who disregard the prioritization to be punished.
The Palace said President Rodrigo Duterte’s advanced age and position as the country’s leader enable him to choose which COVID-19 vaccine brand he will take.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque, who had said Filipinos cannot choose which vaccine will be administered to them for free, said the President was different.
“The President is a president, and because he is over 70 years old,” he said.
But Roque said the President would not be vaccinated yet because the health workers must go first.
At the same time, the Palace said Filipinos will not be forced to get inoculated, saying the vaccine program is not mandatory.
Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles issued the statement after the government started the vaccination program with the arrival of 600,000 doses of Chinese vaccines Sinovac on Feb. 28.
“The President won’t force anyone, although he and the entire government are encouraging the public to accept the vaccine without hesitation when the time comes that they are next in line to receive the vaccine,” Nograles said.
The government aims to inoculate 50 million to 70 million Filipinos nationwide, but it is not making inoculation against COVID-19 mandatory.
In other developments:
* Senator Joel Villanueva on Thursday warned against employers who threatened to terminate employees who opt out from vaccination programs implemented by them. Instead of forcing workers to be inoculated, Villanueva said, companies should carry out confidence-building measures. Villanueva, chairman of the Senate labor committee, reacted to reports on “no vaccination, no work policy” and appealed to the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) to immediately issue clear guidelines on the matter to ensure that both workers and employers stand on a level playing field.
* Senator Juan Edgardo Angara cited the need for more public-private partnerships during this time to accelerate the country’s vaccination program and hasten economic recovery from the slump brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. Speaking at the webinar “Leadership during Crisis: Ensuring a Resilient Economy through Public and Private Collaboration” organized by the Ateneo de Manila University School of Government, Angara said the importance of public and private partnerships was all the more highlighted during the last 12 months when the country had to deal with the pandemic.
After the country’s health system was overwhelmed by the sheer number of COVID-19 cases that emerged in the initial months of the pandemic, Angara noted that the private sector stepped up to collaborate with the government.
* The Department of Health said focus group discussions show Filipinos want to see government officials inoculated against COVID-19. DOH Director for Promotion and Communication Service Dr. Beverly Ho said discussions hosted by a third-party firm had shown that government officials are among the “main influencers” for COVID-19 vaccination. Ho said a similar study on childhood vaccination conducted two years ago also found that health workers influence public confidence in inoculation.