THE Opposition United National Congress (UNC) has called on Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh to “roll out” over glitches in the Government’s Covid-19 vaccine programme, launched last Tuesday.
Caroni East MP Dr Rishad Seecheran, speaking at the United National Congress (UNC) virtual news conference yesterday, said the ministry, under Deyalsingh, had failed to prepare for its public inoculation drive, after taking months to secure a first tranche of vaccines.
During this time, the State could have utilised human and other resources currently lying idle to set up a network and hotline system through which people could book vaccine appointments without stress.
Seecheran, who also spoke on the Opposition’s concerns over Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley’s positive Covid-19 diagnosis last week, noted a volley of public complaints over the current booking system.
People had waited days on the phone lines provided before securing appointments, Seecheran said, but he went on to express confusion that the 33,600 AstraZeneca vaccines in use had been offered to the general public.
He said the impression had been given that the tranche, which came via the United Nations’ COVAX facility on March 30, was to be prioritised among frontline healthcare workers, people over 60 years old, and those whose health was compromised by chronic disease.
The appointment system had opened the programme to inequity, as vaccines were reportedly being rushed by others ahead of people like registered clinic patients, he said.
Many skilled young people were looking for work, he said, and the Government could have created a vaccine appointment “phone bank”, as has been done by the United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS).
“I had constituents who actually gave up calling and went directly to their nearest health centre to book a vaccine appointment,” Seecheran stated.
“We have reports of throngs of people lining up outside health centres, including one in the Prime Minister’s constituency, to get their name on the roster. My point here is that we had enough time to see other countries roll out their vaccination drives and we had the opportunity to take the best of each and to create our own,” said the Caroni East MP.
Deyalsingh last week acknowledged “teething” problems in the roll-out, saying public response had outweighed expectation. More features including online and WhatsApp booking systems were expected this week, he said.
Seecheran said Deyalsingh should thank the government of India and Indian High Commissioner to Trinidad and Tobago, Arun Kumar Sahu, for solving its dilemma over how to share up the COVAX shipment, which could either be used to administer the required two doses to those vaccinated from last week, or be further dispensed as a first dose.
The 40,000 Oxford AstraZeneca vaccines expected in T&T today were gifted by the government of India, after the Rowley administration faced pressure for failing to approach India for a donation, which some Caricom neighbours including Barbados received in February.
Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar had also written to India Prime Minister Narendra Modi, drawing criticism by claiming T&T was in a Covid-19 crisis and asking for vaccines.
“With regard to the dilemma of what to do with the next half of the vaccines, I would like to advise the minister that the government of India has solved that problem for you,” Seecheran said.
“You should thank the High Commissioner of India, who bailed you out of the predicament that you found yourself in, with the first tranche of the COVAX facility. You can now run out the 33,600 vaccines within their expiry date, and give them all as first shots. You will have 40,000 doses from the government of India to utilise as a second dose.”
He added: “Minister Deyalsingh, as the vaccines are being rolled out, you, too, should take your leave and roll out.”
Seecheran expressed concerns over domestic travel during the Easter weekend, noting statements by Works and Transport Minister Rohan Sinanan that more than 50,000 people travelled between T&T on the air and sea bridge over seven days.
“We are the lowest vaccinated country in Caricom and are currently experiencing a large surge,” Seecheran said. “We had 58 cases in the last 24 hours and more to come after the Easter holiday. The cases are rising daily, and we are not sure when they will peak. Are we heading into another national lockdown?”
Not clear on PM
Seecheran said too many questions remained as to the timing of the Prime Minister’s positive Covid-19 test and whether other members of Cabinet, the Opposition and Parliament staff had reason to be concerned.
He said the Government and Rowley have stringently upheld the public health regulations under guidance from Chief Medical Officer (CMO) Dr Roshan Parasram, but were not being upfront with the population about Rowley, who tested positive last week Tuesday.
The Opposition on Friday refused to sit in the Parliament to debate legislation before the House, citing concerns as to who may have been exposed to the Prime Minister and when.
The party said it is not accepting explanations by the Government that no one else was affected within the PM’s circle.
Seecheran noted statements at the weekend by head epidemiologist at the ministry, Dr Avery Hinds, with Hinds pointing out the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) updated policy of contact tracing persons who interacted with a Covid-19 positive person up to 48 hours before first symptoms.
“In Dr Rowley’s case that would be up to around Easter Friday. Now these are the persons that the PM could have infected, it does not tell us when he was infected.”
The Covid-19 incubation period between exposure to the virus and symptom onset averages five to six days but can be as long as 14 days, the WHO has said.
“The CMO is on record stating this policy to the media. Now, the PM has at least one comorbidity and that too would affect the incubation period,” he said.
“Using the WHO guidelines for the incubation period, and with April 5, 2021 as the date of first symptoms, the PM could have been infected as early as March 22, 2021 and as late as March 31, 2021.”
UNC Chief Whip David Lee wrote to the Speaker of the House, Bridgid Annisette-George, that Minister of National Security Stuart Young and Planning Minister Camille Robinson-Regis were in Tobago while the Prime Minister was there.
“Dr Hinds has indicated that Dr Rowley would have been infectious during the Easter weekend, and he would not have known this, as he did not experience symptoms till the Easter Monday,” Seecheran said, calling for clarity from the relevant authorities.
Rowley is currently recovering at the Prime Minister’s official residence in Tobago.