Over the last week, India has seen immense focus on reported shortage of COVID-19 vaccines in several states. In Tamil Nadu however, as of 12.30 pm on April 8, over 16 lakh vaccines remained in storage to be given to citizens. Of the larger states, according to reports, Tamil Nadu was the most comfortably placed as far as doses remaining were concerned. However, before one takes solace in these numbers, one must understand that this statistic points to a larger concern: the residents of the state are not coming forward to get vaccinated.
Tamil Nadu has the highest number of days remaining in terms of vaccine availability but this is not a statistic to be proud of. Of the over 54 lakh vaccines given to the state by the union government, only a little over 37 lakh have been used. From April 1 to April 8, the average vaccination level in the state was reportedly a very low 37,000 per day. When TNM contacted state health officials earlier this year, they had said that any new vaccine will take time to earn the trust of residents. In January, healthcare workers showed up in low numbers for inoculation and as the first phase of vaccination moved into February, at least 25,000 doses were wasted as the turnout remained lesser than expected. On March 22, as senior citizens came to be inoculated, the number of daily vaccinations finally rose to 1.52 lakh — but only to drop to a new low of 15,168 on April 4.
On March 29, over one lakh people took the vaccine but this dropped to close to 80,000 on March 31. On April 1 meanwhile the number stood at 60,726 and at 65,793 on April 3. And the numbers only kept falling further from there. With the dip in April, the Health Department shifted the blame to the electoral process for low turnout of takers. "The numbers dropped because a lot of staff members from the Health Department were moved to election duty," says a senior health official from Chennai. "In Chennai alone, the week before elections, we had 30,000 people taking the vaccine," he adds.
Director of Public Health, Selvavinayagam, too says that vaccination levels dipped because of the elections and the common man's involvement in the process. But the state of Kerala, which also faced elections during the same period, still managed to administer an average of over 1 lakh vaccines per day in the first week of April.
Speaking to TNM, Principal Secretary of the Health Department Dr J Radhakrishnan presents a clearer image. While he attributes the sudden dip to the polls, he admits that overall vaccination levels too are far below satisfactory.
"Tamil Nadu is known for its top notch healthcare system and scientific temper. Despite this, to see such low turnout for vaccines is disappointing," says Radhakrishnan. "Even medical students are not completely vaccinated yet. This is shameful," he adds.
According to senior government officials, residents aged above 60 have been dedicated in their efforts to get vaccinated. When the state opened up vaccination for those above 45 however, vaccine hesitancy became apparent. And while the state government expects numbers to increase post the elections, if the surge is not satisfactory, the Union government will provide fewer vaccines to the state in its next allotment. To prevent this, the Health Department has planned a slew of measures.
There are currently 5,000 centres for vaccination in the state with capacity to vaccinate 5 lakh people a day. Dr Radhakrishnan however says that mere quantity of centres is not the key.
"We need to rationalise the number and incentivise centres that are performing well. There are some centres that administer 20-25 vaccines in a day. We will direct our resources better," he explains.
He further explains that the 'Vaccine vizha (festival)' has been initiated in the state to battle hesitancy. "We will be going to trade associations, hotel associations and the likes and initiating aggressive vaccine campaigns to encourage people to take the shot," he explains. With the elections over in the state, all efforts can be dedicatedly directed towards the 'vizha', multiple health officials say.
"Finally we need to battle any disinformation about the vaccine, like we are already doing," he says, "and make efforts to ensure the age groups that are allowed to take the shot make their way to the centres.”