Covid-19: Unpacking North West’s low vaccination numbers

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Despite having surpassed the one million mark for vaccine doses administered, the North West province remains one of South Africa’s worst-performing provinces when it comes to getting jabs into arms.

Misinformation on social media, vaccine hesitancy, and in some cases, difficulty in accessing some farming communities due to security concerns are claimed to be some of the reasons the province’s numbers remain low.

By 3 October, 1 032 688 vaccine doses have been administered across 90 vaccine sites in four districts including Bojanala Platinum District Municipality, Ngaka Modiri Molema, Dr Ruth Segomotsi Mompati, and Dr Kenneth Kaunda District Municipality.

According to data released by the Department of Health on October 3, the total number of single-dose J&J vaccines administered in the province was at 325 961 with a combined total of 706 727 first and second shot Pfizer vaccines.

Just over 28% of the North West’s population of 2 693 247 were fully vaccinated by 3 October.

However, the North West is still trailing behind most provinces and is one of the three poorest performing provinces alongside the Free State, Northern Cape, and Mpumalanga.

Behind the numbers: What the communities say

According to Professor Binu Luke, head of the provincial Covid-19 response team, misinformation and the spread of myths on social media are some of the challenges which are causing delays in getting people to vaccinate.

"There are some people who are spreading lies on social media and telling people that if you are vaccinated, you will suffer from erectile dysfunction or your DNA will be altered. Some have even gone to the extent of telling people that the vaccine has got a microchip embedded in it.

"Such lies and misinformation are disturbing our efforts of bringing vaccines to the people. A negative attitude within some communities and lack of knowledge are a huge cause for concern," he says.

Luke says another issue is that there are not enough people registering on the Electronic Vaccination and Data System (EVDS) meaning that there is low demand.

"We have not yet reached a stage where there is a big enough demand for vaccines in the province. It seems like our people are waiting for a tragedy to happen and then they will come forward to get vaccinated.

"If not enough people are coming forward to get vaccinated, we might see ourselves going back to level 4. If we look at other countries like England, they had waited for 80% of the population to be vaccinated before easing restrictions to the level that South Africa has. We are only nearing the 30% mark, he says."

Luke says the province is currently targeting farm workers and students who are over the age of 18.

According to the Democratic Alliances’ (DA) Gavin Edwards, the geographical layout of the province (which is predominantly rural) and the negative attitude of some farmers is contributing to a poor turnout at vaccination sites.

“The geographical layout of the province is making it difficult to reach certain areas but I would like to commend the health department for working with community leaders to reach certain areas.

"Some farmers who have a poor attitude towards vaccines are also refusing that their workers should be vaccinated by denying us entry into their farms. If the farmer does not believe in getting vaccinated, then it means that he will influence the workers and close off the gates to health workers," Edwards says.

He says they have seen some positive attitudes in areas such as Christiana, Bloemhof, and Rustenburg.

In these areas, we have seen encouraging and good feedback from health team leaders and if we can replicate this in other areas then we can do better.

Edwards says the other problem is that there is a poor turnout in urban areas because people are working during the week and they cannot come to vaccine sites. With the newly launched Operation Vooma, we are hoping to see positive outcomes.

Encouraged to get vaccinated

According to Lerato Matsoso, a general worker at Rascal Seeds, a potato farm near the town of Warrenton, farmworkers have been encouraged to get vaccinated and they were even offered transport by their employers to Utlwanang Community Healthcare Centre.

“Our employers have encouraged us to get vaccinated and we have been transported to various vaccination sites around the Christiana area and Utlwanang township. Most of our colleagues have received vaccines and all of us have not had any negative side effects,” she tells Spotlight.

“Staff across various vaccination sites have been friendly and welcoming. Even though we did not register on the EVDS system, we have been able to receive our vaccine shots. I received the single dose J&J shot and some went for the double-dose Pfizer shot.

Some farmer unions partnering with health department

CEO of Agri North West, which represents over 2 000 commercial farmers in the province, Boeta du Toit says it is their view that everybody should get vaccinated.

“Even though there have been some security concerns with some farmers and health officials who were unable to access some farms we have managed to get workers to various vaccination sites.”

Du Toit says that there have been some mobile clinics that were going to the farms but taking workers to vaccination sites has proven to be more effective.

“Most of the farmers prefer to take their workers to vaccination sites and we have been working with the South African Police Services to ensure that access control protocols are adhered to. It is in the interest of everybody to get vaccinated so that we can protect our loved ones. We have lost many farmers due to the pandemic,” he says.

Du Toit adds that vaccination is not only about the workers but also about their family members.

Access to technology a stumbling block

Departmental vaccination team leader, Thabo Ramookho who operates in villages in the Ngaka Modiri Molema District says access to technology is a stumbling block since many people cannot access the government’s electronic vaccination data system (EVDS).

"People in rural areas do not have access to smartphones or computers so many are not registering on the EVDS. In one village we struggled to get a venue and one person ended up offering us their home.”

Mookho says that people in rural areas prefer the J&J jab instead of the Pfizer double shot because most of them live a nomadic lifestyle. “One day they are in the village, the other day at their place of employment or at their livestock grazing grounds. So, if they take the Pfizer double-dose shot they end up missing the date for their second because they are far from a vaccine site,” says Mookho.

Hits and misses

Partnering with the provincial health department, the North West University (NWU) managed to surpass the 21 000 jabs mark during a vaccination outreach drive at its Mahikeng and Potchefstroom campuses. The vaccination drive ran from July to the beginning of September.

Executive Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences, Professor Awie Kotze says the outreach had a significant impact and he was happy with the outcome. “We believe the drive made a meaningful impact in addressing the Covid-19 pandemic.

"We are so proud of all the NWU staff, ranging from academics to support staff, and other stakeholders involved in doing volunteer work, and encouraging people to get vaccinated, he says.

elsewhere, to help people get vaccinated who cannot make it on weekdays, the Ngaka Modiri Molema District Municipality provided a drive-through vaccination service on the weekend of 23 to 25 September.

Municipal spokesperson, George Tlholatlung says the response from the community was positive.

“Many people are in a hurry when they come to town so we thought we should come up with this strategy to encourage motorists to come forward and vaccinate. We are doing more than 250 vaccinations per day at this facility,” Tlholatlung says.

Kabelo Lethoko (36) from Mahikeng tells Spotlight he is happy to have received his shot at the drive-thru vaccine site.

“The service was very quick and the nursing staff was friendly. I have just finished my waiting period at the parking lot and I am confident to say that I do not have any complications. I will be telling more of my friends to come here a vaccinate so they can lead healthier and safer lives.

Vooma vaccination weekends

Meanwhile, the Vooma vaccination weekends as recently announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa are also taking place in the North West.

Speaking at the launch of the Vooma Weekend in Phokeng outside Rustenburg this weekend, North West Health MEC Madoda Sambatha said efforts to bring vaccines to people have begun to bear fruit.

"Our efforts to persuade our communities to register to vaccinate has finally started to bear fruit as we see [an uptick] in our daily numbers of vaccines administered. We are further impressed by the support we receive from various stakeholders who are drumming support to ensure that access to the vaccine is hugely improved," said Sambatha.

The health department in the province has various strategies in place to promote access to vaccines in communities. Vaccines are now available at pop-up sites at shopping malls, churches, car washes, and other frequented places to ensure that access to registration and vaccination is enhanced.

Sambatha hailed the one million doses administered as a huge milestone for the province.

"Bridging the one million mark of administered jabs in the province is no small feat. It is a demonstration of concerted efforts and hard work to ensure that we convince our people to take this life-saving vaccine.

"We are supposed to celebrate this milestone and continue to use it to pursue more people who seem hesitant to get vaccinated so that we can reach our provincial target of 2.7 million before the end of this year to secure community immunity,” said Sambatha.

*This article was produced by Spotlight - health journalism in the public interest.

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