Mumbai/New Delhi: On Wednesday, Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan responded to the growing clamour about the shortage of vaccines from across the country, particularly from the state governments of Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh, saying the claims were “utterly baseless”.
Some state governments and even the private sector have been claiming that the vaccine distribution network — controlled entirely by the Narendra Modi government — is restrictive, and that they are inoculating people below capacity because not enough doses are available.
Vardhan, in turn, alleged that Maharashtra and some other states were trying to cover up their “failures” and “spreading panic” among people by demanding vaccination for all without inoculating enough beneficiaries who are already eligible. Singling out Maharashtra, he said the statements about shortage of vaccines were “nothing but an attempt to divert attention” from the state government’s “repeated failures to control the spread of pandemic”.
However, when ThePrint took stock of the ground situation across the country, we found the health minister’s claims and assurances were not entirely accurate.
The case of Maharashtra
Maharashtra Health Minister Rajesh Tope announced Wednesday that the state’s Covid vaccine stocks will only last for three days, and that several centres are having to shut down because of this.
“I spent 15 minutes yesterday explaining the situation to the Union Health Minister… Every day I am getting calls from one place or the other saying the vaccine stock is over or close to finished. As health minister, instead of focusing on larger policy issues and their implementation, I am spending more time on situational firefighting,” Tope said.
As of 5 April, Maharashtra was allotted 1.06 crore vaccine doses, including Covishield and Covaxin. However, by Wednesday, Tope claimed the state was left with just 14 lakh doses.
Sources in the central government told ThePrint that another 7,43,280 doses are in the pipeline for Maharashtra. However, Tope said: “Every week, we should get a minimum of 40 lakh doses. We will be then able to scale up vaccinations to even 6 lakh a day. We have requested the Centre for more supply. They are not against it, but the speed at which the stock is coming here is very slow.”
A civic official in Mumbai, which has so far administered 14,71,000 Covid vaccine doses, said the situation is bad in private as well as public hospitals.
“Vaccination doses are allotted depending on the number of booths being set up by every centre, whether private or public. One booth administers about 100-200 doses. But, centres are not getting the stock that they are demanding,” said the official, who did not wish to be identified.
Pune’s District Health Officer Dr Bhagwan Pawan, meanwhile, said: “There are 1.23 lakh doses, for the municipal and the rural areas as well, which will get over in two days. All the centres are open, but will have to be closed in two days. We have given little stock in all the centres.”
In Raigad district, the administration had been aggressively mobilising people over 45 years to register for vaccination, a district official said. “We have about a hundred centres. None of the centres have sufficient stock, but at some places the doses left are abysmal in number, or even zero.”
He added that vaccination stock is distributed among centres depending on the percentage of population over 45 years of age in a particular area, and the booth strength. Private vaccination centres are given the number of vaccines they are willing to pay for. “But we are not being able to meet the demand anywhere. So, we have devised a ratio to allocate vaccines according to availability, population and need.”
However, Tope pointed out Wednesday that the spread of the novel coronavirus is now largely among the 20-40 age group, and inoculating these people is the only way to stop infections. “Sooner than later, the Centre will have to take a decision about universal Covid vaccination above 18 years. The government can do it later in other states, but considering the situation in Maharashtra, this should be allowed here,” he said.
The state government has, in a directive dated 4 April, mandated all public transport drivers and other staff, restaurant and e-commerce delivery persons to get vaccinated or carry a negative RT-PCR test certificate valid for 15 days. If found without either, they can attract a penalties of Rs 1,000 for the person, and Rs 10,000 for the establishment they’re associated with. The same rule applies to construction workers, for whom developers could have to pay a penalty of Rs 10,000.
This has compounded the problem, with a state health department official saying: “We have heard reports of such persons turning up for vaccinations at certain places where stock isn’t available.”
Similar story in other states
Vaccinations in Chhattisgarh almost came to a halt Monday, and getting supplies from government stores daily is a problem, Health Minister T.S. Singh Deo told ThePrint.
“Since the beginning of April, we registered between 2,34,397 and 3,26,012 vaccinations every day. But Monday, we hardly did any, because there were no supplies. Now, we have got 3,25,000 doses, but this restricted supply line also means every day from the districts, one van has to go to collect the vaccines,” Singh Deo said.
“We have told the Union health minister that if that’s what is needed we will do it, but give us a plan so that we do not get to a point where people come to get the shot and are told we have run out,” he added.
Many other states are also on the brink. Shalini Pandit, mission director of the National Health Mission for Odisha, said: “As of today (7 April), we have stock of 5.34 lakh doses of Covishield. We will be able to continue vaccination for the next two days with the available stock and the current trend of vaccination coverage. But we will be out of Covishield stock by 9 April.”
Bihar’s State Immunisation Officer, NHM, N.K. Sinha also said there was a shortage of vaccines, and the state government had written to the Centre requesting fresh stock.
Meanwhile, Assam’s Director of Health Services Munindra Nath Navatey added: “We have a stock of 4.64 lakh vaccines which will be exhausted in the next three days. We have asked the Centre to send fresh stock; they have asked us to expect it by 12 April, but we have requested to send at least half of it by 10 April so that there is no gap due to shortages.”
Jharkhand, as of 5 April, had only 3.2 lakh doses available, and state Health Secretary K.K. Soan said the state government sent a requisition for vaccines at least twice, but it took a while for the consignment to reach.
Punjab received 3 lakh vaccine doses Monday, and if the fresh stock hadn’t arrived on time, “it could have been a problem”, a state government official told ThePrint.
Virender Ahlawat, State Immunisation Officer, NHM, for Haryana, made a similar observation Wednesday. “We have received stock today… We have now a stock of around 8 lakh vaccines. We are also expecting stock of Covaxin by tomorrow.”
Dr Deepak Ohri, the Chief Medical Officer in Noida, Uttar Pradesh, said supplies had run out a day or two ago, but have since been replenished.
“One or two days ago, we had a problem because the supply had run out. But we knew the van from Lucknow carrying the vaccine was on its way. It reached us last night and now we don’t have a shortage issue,” he said.
However, other states like Karnataka and Gujarat said they have sufficient stocks.
Private hospitals also facing issues
Some private hospitals have faced shortages too, such as Mumbai’s Lilavati Hospital.
Dr V. Ravishankar, CEO at Lilavati Hospital, said: “We have been told that private hospitals are not getting new stock of vaccines now. We have enough for just one more day. Other than that, whatever stock we have now is for the second dose. Before the shortage, there were no issues at all. We had more doses than the demand.”
Private hospitals in Gurugram too faced problems. A senior executive of a hospital chain with a presence in Delhi-NCR and in Mumbai said: “We have to get our vaccines every day from the district administration. This Saturday, there was a near-crisis situation in Gurugram when the Chief Medical Officer told us there were no vaccines available. But when we asked what we should tell people who had booked slots in advance on a weekend, we were clearly told not to mention shortage and simply put it down to a ‘technical glitch’.”
The executive continued: “Three private hospitals in Gurugram came together and were desperately trying to source vaccines from Delhi etc. Thankfully, the matter was resolved in the end and the vaccines arrived.”
However, the executive added that his chain’s hospital in Mumbai is not facing any shortage yet, and has been vaccinating about 1,000 people every day.
Delhi’s Medeor Hospital (earlier known as Rockland), which faced some difficulties earlier this week, also clarified that this was not due to vaccine shortage.
Dr Anil Kumar, head of infection control and HIV, said: “It was about two-three days ago that we weren’t able to give jabs for a few hours since we faced some technical issues while making the payment for the vaccine to the government. There was no shortage from the government’s side in providing us with the doses.”
Kumar added: “We have to make the payments before we receive the doses, and since the portal was taking long, there was a gap of three-four hours wherein we were unable to process the payment, and hence not able to vaccinate some of the beneficiaries during that slot. We already had 50 doses at that point. Other than that, there was no vaccine shortage as such. The hospital paid for 750 more doses after that, and has also received them.”
Another issue noticed at hospitals is the lingering problem of vaccine hesitancy. Large private hospitals like Sir Ganga Ram Hospital in New Delhi are running their vaccination programmes under capacity, because fewer people are coming forward.
“Initially, when healthcare and frontline workers were coming, we were vaccinating around 500 people a day. But strangely, after those above 45 were allowed, we’ve seen a drop in numbers. We have a capacity to do 600 to 800 vaccinations a day, but only 250 to 300 are coming forward,” said Dr Shalini Chawla, the nodal officer for Covid-19 at Sir Ganga Ram Hospital.
Chawla added: “We want more people to come forward. Lots of young people, accompanying their parents, have expressed to me that they would like to get vaccinated. Maybe vaccinating young people will encourage the older ones to come forward.”
Apollo Hospital, New Delhi, which has the capacity to vaccinate 500 people a day, is also seeing only 350 to 400 people.
“We have the infrastructure, the manpower, and experience to carry out vaccinations and we can do many more than we are getting now. We feel the drive has to go faster. But there is hesitancy,” said Dr S. Chatterjee, who is overseeing the inoculation programme at Apollo Hospital.
However, at the government-run AIIMS, New Delhi, ThePrint found a steady stream of people coming in for vaccination.
“We’re getting more than 1,000 people a day at our centre. The numbers have gone up since those above 45 became eligible for the shot,” said a doctor on the patient monitoring committee who did not wish to be named. “We’re open from 9 to 5, and we are not experiencing any hesitancy.”
Girdhar Giani, general secretary of the Association of Healthcare Providers (India), confirmed that most private hospitals were vaccinating below capacity.
“On an average, a 100-bed hospital can give 300 vaccinations and a 400-bed hospital can easily vaccinate 1,500 people. We have 3,000 private hospitals with 100-plus bed capacity, and these alone can vaccinate 2 million per day,” Giani said.
“Then, we have 25,000 small hospitals with bed capacity between 30 and 100, and many more with a bed capacity of 30 and below. We can easily vaccinate 20 million people per day,” he continued.
“We have been vaccinating 1.3-1.5 million people every day, except yesterday (6 April), when it went up to 4.96 million… Considering the hesitancy and underutilised capacity in private systems, it will be good if vaccination is opened up for 20-44 years of age — roughly 40 per cent of India’s population,” Giani added.
(With inputs from Simrin Sirur, Angana Chakrabarti and Abantika Ghosh)
(Edited by Shreyas Sharma)