Liberia: COVID-19 Vaccination on a Slow Pace in Lofa County

VOINJAMA – Lofa County may have the fifth-highest COVID-19 infection rate and their second-highest fatality rate, but much is not being done to ensure that more people benefit from the vaccines that are rolled out, data from health authorities indicate.

Festus G. Frazer with Journalist for Human Rights

That northern county capped up the top five hardest hit by the pandemic behind Maryland (164), Nimba (183), Margibi (201), and Montserrado (4,553) Counties. Lofa has also recorded 35 deaths, the National Public Health Institute’s records show, but only a few people have given immunized against the virus in the area.

NPHIL data indicates that a little over 3,850 persons took the first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine in the county—accounting for fewer than five percent of the total number of people who have taken their first dose of AstraZeneca in the country.

An additional 1,000 of the second doses of AstraZeneca arrived in Lofa a fortnight ago, county’s health promotion focal person at the level of the County Health Team, William Sherman, told newsmen recently in Voinjama.

“This will ensure that those who took their first dose take their second,” he says. This however leaves a gap of more than 1,850 persons who will have to wait to get fully vaccinated.

But Sherman assured that the health team is “working with the central office in Monrovia to ensure more people are vaccinated.

J&J Might Help Do the Magic

Mr. Sherman also says Lofa County has received a total of 24,805 doses of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 from the Ministry of Health and the Incident management system and would begin administering them to the public after the finalization of a communication strategy that would help create robust awareness about the exercise.

“Health authorities in the county are designing a risk communication strategy to facilitate its localized roll-out of the J&J vaccines across the county.

“We should have launched it last week Friday, but we had some constraints and we are also concluding the development of our risk communication strategy,” Sherman said.

The government on August 5, 2021, had a national launch of over 300,000 doses of the J&J vaccines, which were donated by the United States Government through the COVAX facility — a partnership of CEPI, GAVI, UNICEF, and WHO.

The risk communication strategy, Mr. Sherman said, will include radio awareness, drama production, house-to-house mobilization, advocacy meetings, and coordination with sectors, among other things. “These activities are geared toward enhancing effective vaccines drive and behavior change in the county,” he said.

Unlike the AstraZeneca vaccines which prioritized health workers before later being administered to the public, the J&J will be available to the public, Sherman added.

“The Johnson and Johnson will be opened to everybody. It’s not going to be like the AstraZeneca that we give priority to health workers”, he said while expressing optimism about increased vaccines intake in the county.

“I’m very hopeful that we will have a bigger turn-out for the vaccines if and only if we do the risk communication strategy well; maybe a week or more before the implementation, we will be able to get a larger population coming for the vaccines”, he said.

Lofa alone is not lagging behind in terms of administering the jabs as the country itself is far behind schedule.

Though the government expressed optimism of ensuring that about 10 percent of the population is fully vaccinated by the end of September, the country is miles away from realizing this dream. The government has vaccinated just 3.32 percent of the population with just a day to the deadline of the target.

As of September 24, 2021, the Incident management system (IMS) data indicates that a total of 165, 814 persons have received at least a jab.

The ten percent threshold is a target set by the World Health Organization (WHO) to ensure that ten percent of every country’s population is vaccinated and we want to meet that.

 Minister Jallah said at a press conference in Monrovia recently that Liberia is making a difference in vaccination.

“The demand, for us, is here so we need to supply or visit communities, churches, schools, villages, and towns with the Vaccine in other to meet our quota by September 30, 2021,” she said.

WHO Director General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, on May 24, 2021, called for all countries to vaccinate at least 10 percent of their populations by September and at least 30 percent by the end of 2021.

He urged WHO member states should back the “massive push” to reach these COVID-19 vaccination goals.

This is crucial to stop severe disease and death, keep our health workers safe and reopen our societies and economies,” he said.

Health Minister Jallah noted that the Liberian government has been working assiduously to ensure that it meets the global health body’s target. “We are reaching everywhere to make sure the vaccines get to our people to be vaccinated,” she said.

“We are making progress when it comes to the numbers of people recovering from the virus,” Minister Jallah said while urging every Liberian to continue to follow the preventive measures, especially mask-wearing and keeping distance away from people.

Though some residents expressed frustration over the slow pace of the vaccination process in the county, they are willing to take the jabs when the health team finally begins the process.

Acquoi Mulbah, a resident of Voinjama, noted that the surest way the virus can be defeated from the country is by ensuring that everyone is vaccinated. Meanwhile, some people have expressed their willingness to take the vaccines.

“The government should do all it can to reach out to the people. If we are to be relieved of this terrible situation, our government must vaccinate everyone,” Mulbah said, “I’m even willing to take mine now.”

Louis Jallah, 26, said she does not understand why it has been taking so long for the vaccines to reach Lofa County. “We have been waiting because the little ones that came first, according to the Count Health Team, was for the nurses and doctors. I cannot wait to get mine because I want my body to be prepared for the virus.

 The population in Lofa has begun to understand that the vaccines will help boost their immune system against COVID-19.

“I’m beginning to understand that all of the information that we were getting, especially from the internet about how bad the vaccines are not true. I will take the J&J vaccines now that it is here and build my system for any eventuality. I’m taking no chance with this virus,” Emmanuel Kolubah, a youth leader in Voinjama noted. 

However, vaccine hesitancy has been a huge problem affecting the fight against the pandemic. Not even half of a total of 494,400 doses of both the AstraZeneca (192,000) and Johnson and Johnson (302,400) doses imported are yet to be used. Vaccine hesitancy is also happening in other parts of Africa.

This story was produced with support from Journalists for Human Rights (JHR), through the Mobilizing Media in the Fight Against COVID-19 in partnership with FrontPage Africa.

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