In the beginning of September, Tamil Nadu was receiving a fair amount of bad press. The state was found to be a poor performer in the COVID-19 vaccine coverage. To make matters worse, a poll by the Observer Research Foundation published in September showed that Tamil Nadu was the worst performing state in India when it came to vaccinating its 60+ population, as it had vaccinated only 559 senior citizens with at least one dose, for every 1,000 senior citizens. This was poor compared to the national average of at least one dose for 947.3 per 1000 senior citizens.
This forced the state government to rethink its COVID-19 vaccination strategy. But within a week, the state had a solution. It introduced the COVID-19 mega vaccination drive — a day-long, extensive vaccination campaign running across all districts, with thousands of additional vaccine centres and personnel put to use. On September 12, Tamil Nadu launched its first mega vaccination camp. With 40,000 vaccination centres across 38 districts, the state vaccinated 28.91 lakh people on the same day, over and above the 20 lakh target that the Health Department had set.
Now, two months and seven such mega drives later, the state has vaccinated 1.49 crore of its residents with at least one dose — a feat which health officials say would not have been possible without the mega drives. As per data from the Tamil Nadu Health Department from October 30, the state has now inoculated 71% of its eligible population with at least one dose, and 31% with both doses.
“We had a lot of vaccine hesitancy in the initial months. With the death of a prominent actor in Tamil Nadu (and rumours that this was caused by the vaccine), this hesitancy increased. But things changed after the second wave, and more people were turning up at the vaccine centres. The success of the mega drives stands testimony to this. In all the seven drives, we have vaccinated not less than 16 lakh people in a day. The highest was 28.91 lakh in our very first drive on September 12,” Tamil Nadu Health Secretary J Radhakrishnan says.
In October, Tamil Nadu held four mega drives over five days and vaccinated 1.14 crore people. “70% of this target was met through the mega or mass drives,” says TS Selvavinyagam, Director of Public Health and Preventive Medicine, Tamil Nadu. “These drives work because they are done on a much bigger scale, although the regular vaccine camps continue to vaccinate people every day. But a big scale attracts more people. There is more buzz and more publicity. The local bodies utilise their workforce for door-to-door canvassing and public campaigns,” he explains.
For example, the seventh vaccination drive held on October 31 had 50,000 vaccination centres across Tamil Nadu, over 2 lakh staffers, and thousands of volunteers vaccinating people. “These drives are only held on Sundays, so there is some consistency. From September 12, it's almost been conducted every Sunday,” says Vishu Mahajan IAS, Deputy Commissioner Revenue and Finance, Chennai Corporation. “So when people know that vaccinations are happening every Sunday in every ward (we had 1,600 vaccination centres in Chennai for the seventh mega drive), they are more likely to visit.”
Explaining how a local body holds the mega vaccination drive, he says, “All departments and their staff participate in public campaigns, door-to-door canvassing and promoting the camp. We have revenue officers, license officers going to malls and rounding up people to get vaccinated and getting senior citizens to make use of the camp.. 7000 to 8000 people from the corporation are working together to pull off the drive on a mass scale. This leads to good results and we have crossed the 2 lakh target quite a few times in the mega drives,” the DC adds.
Despite the success of the mega drives, Dr J Radhakrishnan says that the coming months will see several challenges for Tamil Nadu’s vaccination drive. However, while vaccine shortage no longer seems to be an issue, senior citizens and second dose vaccine hesitancy will be among the major hold ups, he says.
“The state has historically had the problem of vaccine hesitancy. With the mega drive, we have managed to target the eligible population who are not averse to vaccination. But in the coming months, we will be left with the remaining group - who are vaccine averse and a challenge for the Health Department’” Dr Radhakrishnan says. Even now, after seven mega vaccine drives, only 48 % of Tamil Nadu’s 60+ population have been vaccinated with at least one dose, while 25% have received both doses, as on October 30.
While the state comes close to bridging the gap in first dose pendency, delivering second dose becomes a problem. “Lot of people after taking the first dose become complacent. They believe they don’t need a second jab, despite there being enough studies done to show that both doses are needed to reduce mortality in COVID-19. According to our estimates, we have 66 lakh people who are due for second dose in Tamil Nadu currently,” Dr Radhakrishnan adds. According to the Health Secretary, the state government is now focused specifically on administering second doses. “Out of the 17 lakh doses administered in the seventh mega vaccination drive, around 10 lakh were second doses,” he says.
In order to address the rest of the senior citizens, the Health Department has now begun chalking out district specific micro plans, where health workers, ASHA workers etc go down to each and every ward/habitation to do awareness campaigns. “Each district has its idiosyncrasies when it comes to vaccination. Which is why micro planning is crucial. The department has also asked health workers to use the population data to prepare a line list of people who have not been vaccinated. We will then prepare focused and driven strategies to get these people vaccinated,” he adds.