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WhatsApp reminders, counselling, newspaper ads — how states are fighting vaccine hesitancy

Punjab, Uttarakhand & Assam plan to publish ads in newspapers, while Delhi is holding awareness sessions & interpersonal discussions to remove doubts over Covid vaccines.

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New Delhi: Reminders about appointments for vaccination via WhatsApp and social media chat groups, counselling, newspaper ads, and promotion of eminent doctors who have received the Covid-19 vaccine shots as influencers — these are some of the measures states are taking to boost the confidence of healthcare workers so they come forward and take the jabs.  

Due to low turnout of healthcare workers at vaccination booths, states across India are trying to put their best foot forward to draw maximum number of beneficiaries. Some states are even analysing the data of absentees to find out if the hesitation has any connection to gender, comorbidity or age group.

ThePrint spoke to officials in seven states — Rajasthan, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Jharkhand, Delhi, Assam and Gujarat — to find out how they are fighting the vaccine hesitancy.

While Punjab is facing issues with managing anxiety among healthcare workers due to reports of side-effects, Jharkhand is seeing beneficiaries feeling “uncomfortable” while signing the consent form before taking Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin.

Punjab, Uttarakhand and Assam have planned to publish advertisements in newspapers and electronic media, underlying the safety of the vaccines.

Gujarat, meanwhile, has achieved a vaccine coverage of 85 per cent so far, and, therefore, doesn’t plan any motivation drive as of now.

In Rajasthan, health officials have created WhatsApp groups of beneficiaries through which a reminder is being sent about the date of vaccination.

“People are hesitant to come forward, but we are trying our best. We have created a WhatsApp group of beneficiaries at all sites where a reminder message for vaccination date is being sent. We have also created a group of beneficiaries on social media platforms — Facebook and Twitter. The reminders are being sent there too,” Raghuraj Singh, state immunisation officer, told ThePrint.

“In the same groups, we share videos of those who have already taken the vaccine shots, but are fit and fine,” he said.

The state had on 19 January vaccinated 8,692 people against the target of 15,492, with a total coverage of around 56 per cent, he said.

Singh said the state is also promoting elderly doctors, who have taken shots and are doing fine. 

“One of the doctors being promoted is around 93 years of age. Many other known doctors have been picked to remove the hesitancy. They have taken shots and are acting as influencers for our campaign.” 

Also read: Who all will get vaccines free? When will they hit stores? 4 Covid questions on every mind

Awareness sessions in Delhi

In Delhi, medical superintendent and directors of hospitals have been taking the lead in receiving the vaccine to motivate healthcare workers.

However, the number of health workers who got vaccinated on the second day of the drive in the national capital was lesser than the first day on 16 January, leaving Delhi government officials as well as hospital chiefs worried.

Only 44.4 per cent of the 8,136 selected beneficiaries turned up Tuesday in Delhi, government records showed. 

“We have been in touch with the hospitals and asked them to hold awareness sessions and boost the morale of the staff to help them get rid of their fears,” a senior government official in the Directorate of Family Welfare, Delhi, told ThePrint.

ThePrint reached Delhi immunisation officer Suresh Seth through calls and messages, but there was no response until the time of publishing this report.

Dr B.L. Sherwal, medical director, Rajiv Gandhi Super Specialty Hospital (RGSSH), meanwhile, carried out awareness sessions for nearly 75 healthcare workers Wednesday. A similar session was held at Delhi State Cancer Institute too.

“We are doing all we can and carried out interpersonal discussions and took all their questions about safety,” he said.

Sherwal also said he had not been able to take the jab so far since he was on blood thinner medications. 

Dr Chhavi Gupta, spokesperson, RGSSH, however, said, “Some nurses did say they will only take the shot once I have taken it.”

She got vaccinated Thursday.

Dr A.K. Rana, medical superintendent, RML Hospital, who was administered the vaccine on the first day of the drive, feels the turnout will pick up over the next few days. 

“We have seen our numbers go up from Day One to Day Two,” he said, adding that the Union health ministry will also start a campaign to tackle hesitancy over Covid-19 vaccines.

The RML being a central government hospital is in constant touch with the ministry about concerns over vaccine hesitancy among their healthcare workers. Only Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin is available at the hospital. 

Also read: India to export Covid vaccines free of cost to its neighbours as a ‘goodwill gesture’

Covaxin consent form making people ‘uncomfortable’

Jharkhand’s immunisation officer Ajeet Prasad told ThePrint his team is analysing the data of absentees.

“We want to understand what is the profile of those not coming. Are these more of women or men, or what is the age group, do they have any comorbid condition such as diabetes, which is holding them back.”

He added: “Till now, we have understood that these workers get a little uncomfortable while filling up the consent form for Covaxin. We end up counselling them by explaining that the data of the vaccine is quite robust and it’s completely safe to take the shots.” 

On 19 January, the state injected 141 doses of Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin against the target of 600. For Covishield, it administered 8,692 doses against the target of 15,492. 

Like other states, Jharkhand has also started promoting vaccination drives using faces of eminent doctors.

Punjab, Uttarakhand and Assam

In Punjab, immunisation officer Balvinder Kaur said the state is planning to advertise through newspapers that the Covid-19 vaccine has no or only mild side-effects. 

“We are trying to build confidence in people by offering them counselling. The state is also planning to run ads in newspapers stating that the vaccines are safe,” Kaur said.

“We are finding some people a bit nervous after reading the news of adverse events. Beneficiaries often share this anxiety with the vaccination officers at booths. A few beneficiaries — who came to get the shots — became nervous and felt palpitations, who were then counselled well before being given the doses. Hence, we have strengthened the counselling mechanism.”  

The Uttarakhand government — which vaccinated 1,882 beneficiaries against the target of 3,232 (58 per cent) on 19 January — has also identified well-known doctors from the state to promote the safety and need of vaccines. 

“We have started sharing videos of people who have received the vaccine and we have also identified popular and respectable doctors, who can help remove the fear of vaccines among the workers,” said Dr Abhishek Tripathi, additional mission director, National Health Mission, and chief operations officer, Covid-19, Uttarakhand.  

The state is also planning to publish advertisements in newspapers and promote the vaccine campaign through social media. This apart, it has involved accredited social health activist (ASHAs) and nurses, who have got the shots, to promote the drive at the grassroot level.

Assam, which reported vaccine coverage of 54 per cent on the first day, plans to address vaccine hesitancy by “sharing credible information through print/electronic and social media channels and digital platforms, providing details of AEFI (Adverse event following immunisation) incidents, recovery details and taking support of  influencers,” said Pomi Baruah, officer on special duty, National Health Mission.  

Meanwhile, Gujarat hasn’t planned any motivational campaigns as it has achieved around 85 per cent of vaccination coverage so far.

“On the first day (16 January), we achieved more than 90 per cent of the coverage, followed by 85 per cent on the second day (19 January). Till now, there is no need for any such motivation here,” said N.P. Jani, state immunisation officer. 

(Inputs from Karishma Hasnat and Aneesha Bedi) 

Also read: Covaxin, Covishield not for everyone — manufacturers list who should avoid the Covid vaccines


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