Gauribidanur (Karnataka): A 36-year-old Bengaluru resident did all he could to book a vaccination slot for himself and his wife on CoWin. He stayed up through the night, trawling the portal for open slots. He signed up for updates on the Telegram app, and scoured the Bangalore Vaccine Updater minute by minute on Twitter. No luck.
On 10 May, the day vaccinations for the 18-44 age group began in Karnataka, the man got a call from a friend. A jugglery of nearby pin codes had revealed that a few slots were available in Gauribidanur, a taluk in the Chikkaballapur district that lies 80 km from Bengaluru. He checked out the lead and quickly booked a slot for himself and his wife. So did his friends.
The 160-km trip back and forth was no deterrent for the IT hub residents desperate to get the jab.
“We had no other option but to book the slots in Gauribidanur. Every day, we hear about some young person succumbing to Covid. With no beds in hospitals, a vaccine is our last hope,” the 36-year-old, who didn’t wish to be named, told ThePrint.
“Despite waiting for days, we were not able to get any slots (in Bengaluru). So, we decided to travel 160 km to and fro in the hope of protecting ourselves and our families.”
It was a similar motivation that brought Navneet and his wife Pooja, residents of Bengaluru, to Gauribidanur. Speaking to ThePrint outside a vaccination centre Tuesday, Navneet said the government should look into why this is happening.
“I was looking for a slot since it became applicable for those in the age group of 18-44 (1 May). However, despite several attempts, I didn’t get anything,” he added, waiting in queue at the district taluka office in Gauribidanur.
Many other people in the queue said they were from Bengaluru as well, laying bare a strange phenomenon stalking the vaccination drive in one of India’s most developed cities. Bengaluru, touted to be a medical tourism hub, doesn’t seem to have enough vaccines for its residents.
Karnataka allowed Covid shots for 18-44-year-olds 10 days after the official rollout date set by the central government (1 May), but many residents are still having to travel to places like Mysuru, 140 km away, and even less-known pockets such as Gauribidanur to secure a shot.
As of Wednesday, there were 11 vaccination centres for 18-44-year-olds in Bengaluru, with an average of only 150 shots per day at each of them.
According to the bulletin issued by the Karnataka health department Tuesday, the state has administered 20,278 doses among 18-44-year-olds, with the cumulative at 41,803. In Bengaluru on Tuesday, 1,078 doses were administered to 18-44-year-olds. This, even as the state battles a surge in infections wrought by the second Covid wave.
ThePrint reached Dr Om Prakash Patil, Director at the Karnataka Health and Family Welfare Services (state health department), through phone calls, WhatsApp and SMS, for a comment on the vaccination drive but there was no response by the time of publishing this report. Dr Rajani Nageshrao, Deputy Director for Immunisation in the Karnataka Health and Family Welfare Services, didn’t reply to a phone call and text from ThePrint either.
Speaking off the record, however, a health department official acknowledged the shortage in Bengaluru, adding that efforts are underway to ease the situation.
‘Hard work to book appointments’
The second Covid wave has had a brutal impact on Karnataka. It was reported Tuesday that the state overtook Maharashtra to record the highest number of fresh Covid cases in the data released Monday.
Bengaluru, the epicentre of the pandemic in Karnataka, recorded 15,879 cases and 259 deaths on 10 May. This was a fall as compared to 9 May, when the city recorded 16,747 cases and 374 deaths.
In Karnataka, the vaccination drive for the 18-44 age group was launched Monday amid a shortage of vaccine doses.
ThePrint visited four vaccination centres in Bengaluru — KC General hospital, Victoria Hospital, Bowring and Lady Curzon Hospital, and the civic agency-run Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike primary health centre at Vasant Nagar to take stock of the situation — only to find several accounts of chaos enveloping the process.
Shubham Mehta, a 25-year-old analyst, said it “took three days of hard work to book an appointment”.
“Every time, you have to quickly go online, key in the (area) details, and then wait for an OTP. By the time you do all this, you realise that the slot is no longer available,” he added.
Shubham said he understood why someone would travel far to get a shot. “That’s the desperation among the people — with no beds available and no vaccine in Bengaluru, they are willing to travel 70-90 km to get vaccinated,” he added. “They don’t have any other choice, although I think this is not right as we are in a way using the supply meant for the other districts.”
Prabhu, another vaccine recipient, said he began hunting for a slot on 1 May and finally got one for Tuesday, 11 May. “We have been trying this for the past 10 days and it was easily more than 50-plus attempts that we made online. Luckily, I got it yesterday,” he told ThePrint.
“I have been waiting in queue for the past two hours. Considering the number of people who are ahead of me, it will take at least one more hour,” he said. “You are dealing with 150 doses per hospital per day so the government could have surely done better management and made it faster.”
Ashwani, a resident of Indira Nagar, said the “slots get over really quickly and we have been trying (to get one) for the past one week”. “It is extremely difficult to book slots on CoWin,” he added.
Having waited in queue for 2.5 hours, Rajani, a resident of Chikkalasandra, said more vaccination centres are needed. “We used to get a notification on the Telegram App and the moment we went online, the slots would be booked. We have been here for the past 2.5 hours and we will have to wait for at least one hour more the way the queue is progressing,” she added.
Government rules currently don’t allow walk-in appointments for those in the 18-44 age group, but some residents without slots have been turning up at centres nevertheless.
“I have been requesting them to vaccinate me as I have been waiting for several hours, but the nurse is not letting me in. I don’t have a smartphone or a computer, so how should I register myself?” said 42-year-old Prakash, who had queued up at the K.C. General hospital.
“Why don’t they allow walk-ins for people like me? Should people like me just die because we don’t have the means to register? Is this the way a vaccine is rolled out where a large section is left out?” he added.
Vaccination centres point to government guidelines to explain why they are turning away such people.
“We have been administering 150 doses in a day for the 18-44 age group and it is purely based on online appointments. For other age groups, as per government directions, we have been doing 20 per cent online and 80 per cent walk-ins,” said Dr C.R. Jayanthi, Dean and Director of BMCRI, to which Victoria Hospital is affiliated.
“Before the lockdown (Karnataka has imposed a lockdown from 10 to 24 May), we were vaccinating around 1,000-1,500 people. In the past two days, it has been between 500 and 600,” she added.
A medical officer at the BBMP-run PHC in Vasant Nagar said they have no option but to refuse vaccination to some of the people.
“At primary health centres, we are only vaccinating those above 45 years and who require a second dose. But many others end up queuing up and we have no option but to say no,” the officer added. “We don’t have the permission to offer it to those below 45 years. We have vaccinated around 3,000 people in the last 15 days.”
A Karnataka health department official who did not want to be identified said they are aware of the situation and are looking at ways of increasing the supply.
“We are getting complaints from residents of other districts that while they are not getting appointments, people from Bengaluru are booking them. We have 11 vaccination centres so far and we are trying to increase the number to ensure more people can get vaccinated,” the official added.
“Hospitals too have shortage of staff and then they are also doing Covid-care apart from vaccination so we can’t even ask them to take up more,” the official said. They acknowledged a shortage in vaccine supplies, but said efforts are on to address it.
‘Govt could have handled it better’
In Gauribidanur, not everyone is pleased that “tech-savvy” people from Bengaluru are booking up slots in the area before local residents have a chance.
“There are many locals who have not been able to get a slot as they are being fast taken up by others, including those from Bengaluru. The idea is not to restrict anyone but they should reserve a certain percentage for the locals,” said Adarsh, a local resident.
Sahil, a Bengaluru resident who came to the area for vaccination with a group of friends, said he is not opposed to the idea.
“I have been working since April and hence vaccine is our first priority, wherever we get get it. If the local residents want that a certain percentage should be reserved for them, I am all in for it,” he added.
Vinay, who works in the IT sector, said the government needs to have multiple slots and more local government hospitals and dispensaries should be engaged in the exercise.
Aditya, a 23-year-old MBA graduate, said the government “could have handled the drive much better”.
“The notification (for slots) used to pop up on the app. By the time you enter the captcha and everything, it’s gone,” he added.
Khushi, a 19-year-old, said she had been “trying for the past four days to get a slot”.
“They could have distributed this vaccine to other centres as well so that the centres were not crowded and social distancing could be maintained. This would have reduced the crowd of people here,” she added, waiting at Bowring and Lady Curzon Hospital.
The 36-year-old Bengaluru resident quoted before said the experience was cumbersome. “We left early in the morning and reached the centre before 9am. There were some procedural delays and then a change of centre, following which it took us over three hours, but we were happy that at least we got vaccinated,” he added. “I hope for my second dose I won’t have to travel so far.”
(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)