Slow start to Lebanon vaccination raises concerns

Lebanon’s vaccination program has kicked off with vaccines developed by Pfizer-BioNTech, of which the government has ordered 2.1 million doses

  
Men receive a Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine dose during a coronavirus vaccination campaign at Lebanese American University Medical Center-Rizk Hospital in Beirut, Lebanon February 16, 2021.

Men receive a Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine dose during a coronavirus vaccination campaign at Lebanese American University Medical Center-Rizk Hospital in Beirut, Lebanon February 16, 2021.

REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

BEIRUT: As Lebanon enters its second week of the nationwide COVID-19 vaccination program, doctors from Beirut’s top hospitals have expressed concern over the lack of doses available and logistical issues in the Ministry’s vaccination registration platform.

Speaking to The Daily Star Monday, Dr Georges Ghanem, head of the vaccination program at Al Rizk Hospital, warned that his center is facing shortages. The “vaccination village” opened Feb. 16 at the Lebanese American University Medical Center, and has administered around 1,000 vaccine doses to their medical staff and elderly.

“I am afraid that this week we need more. We need more to be delivered today or tomorrow morning urgently otherwise we will be stopping the vaccine tomorrow afternoon,” he told The Daily Star Monday.

Ghanem’s hospital Sunday only received enough vaccine for 540 jabs, which he said would barely see them through two days as they have 750 appointments booked for the next three days and will not receive their second quantity until Wednesday.

Lebanon’s vaccination program has kicked off with vaccines developed by Pfizer-BioNTech, of which the government has ordered 2.1 million doses, enough to inoculate just over 500,000 people, as each individual requires two doses.

So far, nearly 60,000 doses have been shipped from the German pharmaceutical company and Lebanon has reportedly vaccinated around 25,000 people from its first stage priority list, which includes medical staff and those over 75.

Ghanem added that they currently have vaccinated just half of their medical staff, as many are still waiting to receive the SMS notification sent through the Health Ministry’s online registration platform.

The registration system has drawn criticism over the last week as some users in the first priority group who have signed up have been left with no information as to when or where their dose will be administered, which has added further frustration to hospitals that have said they have the capacity to deliver more doses than the Health Ministry is making available.

Dr. Umaya Musharrafieh, head of American University of Beirut Medical Center’s vaccination program, told The Daily Star that the center had been administering around 750-800 jabs a day, but could actually manage as many as 1,200. Nearly all their medical staff have received their first dose, Musharrafieh said.

But AUBMC did experience teething problems with the ministry's registration platform, which resulted in the hospital taking its own initiative to register individuals.

However, the ministry was quick to rebut their decision and AUBMC has since reverted to the ministry platform.

In addition, Rafk Hariri University Hospital realized it had more jabs available than appointments so it also decided to invite residents to ring the hospital’s hotline, but quickly reeled back after it resulted in confusion and accusations of violating the ministry’s regulations.

As a result, some patients ended up being turned away, with the problem spilling over to other hospitals in the city as well.

At Rizk Hospital, Ghanem explained that the decision had a negative impact on their operation as word spread among the public and on social media that hospitals were now taking "walk-in" vaccine appointments.

“It put us in a very difficult position; we had some people come to the village spontaneously who then did not want to leave without receiving the vaccine – it created a small chaos inside the operation.”

Ghanem also said that their center had the capacity to double the number of jabs it was currently administering, but was dependent on the Mministry sending more doses.

Both AUBMC and Rizk hospital have ultra-low temperature freezer storage required by the Pfizer vaccine, a key factor in whether Lebanon should purchase the jab, which has more complex logistical needs than other coronavirus vaccines.

But despite this, the ministry has decided to keep the stock in freezers at Rafik Hariri Hospital before sending doses to each center twice a week where they are then stored in a fridge for a short time before being used.

As Lebanon’s hospitals battle with an intense influx of COVID-19 patients and an alarming surge in the number of deaths, Ghanem stressed the urgent need for the ministry to work harder on creating public awareness about the benefits and safety of vaccines, particularly in remote areas.

“This is a major challenge in my opinion and I don’t see from the authorities and other players in health care an aggressive campaign,” he said.

With the first week passed, Ghanem said the government needsed to “reassess everything now,” while adding that the involvement of the private sector in the country’s inoculation campaign was vital.

“The Health Ministry cannot alone succeed ... the private sector has the means – the human resources and financial means [that] can come in and shorten by half the duration of the national campaign,” he said.

The slow start to Lebanon’s vaccination program has already thrown into doubt the government’s ambition to vaccinate 80 percent of residents to achieve safe herd immunity levels.

Furthermore, the ministry’s decision to not to allow vaccine centers to open on weekends has left citizens frustrated at the apparent lack of urgency, despite the country facing a swath of infections coupled with a tired and financially insecure health sector.

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