COVID-19: What is behind Limpopo’s vaccination numbers?

COVID-19: What is behind Limpopo’s vaccination numbers?Taking antiretrovirals to prevent HIV infection is available in the form of pills, vaginal rings, and injections. (File photo: Nasief Manie/Spotlight)
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From soccer fields to church benches, health authorities in Limpopo say they are using every opportunity and venue at their disposal to spread the word on vaccination and get jabs in arms.

On Sunday, Limpopo Health MEC Dr Phophi Ramathuba sanitised her hands and rolled up her sleeves at a soccer match in Ward 11 in Maruleng to personally administer jabs to soccer supporters.

By Monday, official numbers showed 33,1% of Limpopo’s total adult population had received at least one shot of a COVID-19 vaccine, placing the province neck-and-neck with the Eastern Cape for second place. The Western Cape leads with 38% of its adult population having received at least one shot.

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The how

“It all comes down to understanding and knowing our areas and planning around it,” says spokesperson for the Health MEC Thilivhali Muavha. “At the moment, the Department of Health has extended outreach programmes to 37 vaccines sites to make sure that the vaccine rollout is high. There is a vaccination centre in each corner you will visit. We go to malls and centres to make sure people are vaccinated.”

Muavha says health authorities in the province are always on the move. “We do not stay in one place and hope people come to us. We go to them. There is no excuse for not getting vaccinated. We go to our communities and we had our campaigns at mines and farms so that those people can be vaccinated,” he says. “We visited places such as Westfalia farm in Tzaneen, ZZ2, farms in Giyani, in Sekhukhune, and Greater Letaba Municipality. Remember, we can’t force anyone to get vaccinated. If they don’t want to be vaccinated, it is within their rights.”

Limpopo is currently able to administer an average of around 24 000 vaccines per day.

“When we started, we set our target at 10 000, then went to 20 000 and now we sit at 30 000. If you check, that means we are doing extremely well because we are able to vaccinate twice the number of our initial target,” Muavha tells Spotlight. “We have the system where our hospitals are trying to outdo each other with the number of vaccinations. We always post on our Facebook page which institution had done a great job,” he says.

Efforts praised

Democratic Alliance (DA) spokesperson for health in Limpopo, Risham Maharaj says they are pleased with the vaccination efforts in the province.

“Limpopo province has done exceptionally well with its vaccine rollout. The department of health has a lot of programmes for setting up various vaccine sites, making it easy for people to access.”

Maharaj says the department has also done well with campaigns where they have gone out to the mining areas where there are a lot of people. “They have mobile vaccine centres, have gone to many corporates with vaccines. I think they have done a significant job,” says Maharaj.

Even so, Maharaj is concerned about the slower vaccine uptake in recent weeks. “There has been a lot of false information. There has been a lot of anti-vaccine information and there have been many conspiracy theories,” he says. “I know there were a lot of allegations that people who have taken vaccines have passed on but that all have been investigated and it was found not true. There is a lot of false news that is going out there and it is not helping.”

Muavha also raised concern over vaccine conspiracy theories and fake news that have hindered their vaccination progress but says health authorities are consistently trying to counter this with positive vaccine messages around safety. “The only way we can be prepared for the fourth wave is through vaccination. If people take their vaccines we can avoid it,” says Muavha.

Maharaj says the province has done a lot but “has now become stagnant”. He argues that “we need to come up with innovative ideas on how we can encourage more people to go out and get vaccinated”.

Working with NGOs

One non-governmental organisation, Hlokomela Healthcare in Maruleng has been helping vaccinate people from farming communities in the area.

Spokesperson for the organisation MJ Du Preez tells Spotlight a few months back when vaccination started in Limpopo, particularly in the Mopani area, they realised that they would have to find a way to get the government to support them. “Because in our farming area in Maruleng, there were not many vaccination stations close to the farms. We spoke to the outreach team from Sekororo Hospital to come once every two to three weeks and we started with 20 elderly people. It grew into a weekly thing and now we average about 400 people a day. We aim to do about 600 to 700 people a day,” Du Preez says.

“We are very pleased with the Department of Health in Limpopo. They are doing a great job and its staff is working very hard. However, there are issues that keep popping up with [vaccine] supply and not sending enough staff, but apart from that, we are happy with the partnership since Hlokomela is a health organisation and we don’t have enough capacity.”

Some stumbling blocks

Community healthcare worker at Hlokomela Christina Nkhesani says at first things were difficult.

“It was not easy at the early stages of trying to register people to vaccinate and during the vaccine health talks, most people didn’t understand what that vaccine was all about, and with the conspiracy theories, it was difficult. It meant there was a lot of explaining to do to make sure that we register them to get vaccinated. Fortunately, the farm that I’m responsible for, Oliphant Farm Estate, all workers have been vaccinated. People who were sceptical about receiving the vaccine were due to the ongoing false news that the vaccine can kill and the side effects but we were able to communicate with them and explain to them what is really going on,” she says.

Spotlight has also heard from community members who say they were turned away from the vaccination site at Serurubele Secondary School in Tzaneen.

Kedibone Mabasa* who was among those allegedly turned away on 9 September says, “When I heard they are coming to my village I was happy as I thought I would finally get vaccinated, but I was wrong as I was pulled out of the queue and told to go to the vaccination centre in Lephepane.

“For me to get there means I have to travel and use money I don’t have to get a taxi and complete the procedure that I could have completed there. I thought it was open for everyone,” she says. “The department has done enough in delivering messages about coronavirus vaccines, but it’s things like this that sets you back. I thought it was open to everyone, so I don’t understand why I was turned away. Even now, I have yet to get vaccinated.”

According to Muavha, the department is not aware of any people who have been turned away from the vaccination centres. “I cannot comment about such an incident as we have not received any complaints regarding that. We rather have people turning away because they prefer J&J over Pfizer but not the other way around,” says Muavha.

According to him, the recent slow vaccine uptake was due to preference.

“When we had Pfizer, many young people said they preferred Johnson & Johnson. Last week we received 100 000 doses of Johnson & Johnson and the numbers are picking up again. Limpopo has only 6 million people and so far, we have vaccinated 1.6 million. We are on the right track.”

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