The Pan American Health Organization is an integral partner for the Government of Belize. PAHO, through funding from the European Union, has secured down payments to purchase over one million doses of the expected COVID-19 vaccine for all Caribbean member states. For Belize, that means vaccine coverage for thirty percent of the population. Health and Wellness Minister Michel Chebat says that the vaccine will not be in the country until a few more months. He says that the government and PAHO are working to determine a delivery date.
Michel Chebat, Minister of Health and Wellness
“We are working diligently to get the vaccine in to our country and so we are asking our population to just be patient because I know we have asked a lot of them already but give us a little bit more time to be able to get this vaccine into the country and that should help us. As you know we have signed on to the COVAX facility. We have paid already for thirty percent of the vaccine we need for our population and so we are working with PAHO to determine a delivery date for Belize.”
Open Your Eyes: Health officials are gearing up for our country to receive our first set of COVID-19 in a couple weeks. Reps. from the Ministry of Health and Wellness Belize share with us the ministry's plan on how distribution will be done. A few factors that will consider person's to be vulnerable to receive the vaccine are: The elderly, frontline workers and chronic medical conditions.
Dr. Natalia Beer - Technical Advisor, Maternal and Child Health Lydia Thurton - Chair, National Immunization Technical Advisory Group
The Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) is reporting that COVAX, a coalition led by the World Health Organization (WHO) to ensure equitable access to COVID-19 Vaccines, has notified countries in the Americas about the estimated dose allocation for the first phase of vaccine delivery.
In a press release sent out on Sunday, PAHO reported that 36 of the countries and territories participating in COVAX received these letters, which outlines a delivery schedule starting in the second half of February, through to the second quarter of this year.
The vaccine which Belize and these other 35 countries will receive is Oxford - AstraZeneca - which we note can be transported and stored at normal refrigerated temperatures. PAHO notes that this vaccine is still under review by WHO for emergency use approval, which is expected to occur in the next few days. It is estimated that around 35.3 million doses will be arriving in the Americas in this first stage.
Belize’s access to the coveted COVID-19 vaccine is progressing. The first batch of vaccines should be available in about two months. The Ministry of Health and Wellness established several committees to prepare for the eventual vaccine rollouts. Those include the National Coordinating Committee, which consists of professional associations and ministry officials. The National Immunisation Technical Group or NITAG comprises independent health officials and a former Regional Immunisation Expert from PAHO. This group looks at the scientific data and provides recommendations and also includes Ministry of Health officials. Lastly, there is the National Technical Working Group, which is planning for the vaccine rollout. Doctor Natalia Beer is the Maternal and Child Health Technical Advisor with the Ministry of Health and a National Technical Working group member. She shares the latest on the vaccine progress in tonight’s Healthy Living.
Marleni Cuellar, Reporting
Belize will most likely access the first batch of COVID-19 vaccines through the COVAX Facility. The facility coordinated by GAVI, the Global Vaccine Alliance, aims to ensure equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines. On Wednesday, COVAX’s first interim distribution forecast was released.
Dr. Natalia Beer, Member, National Technical Working Group, M.O.H.W.
“We received the next notice yesterday, the one from the twenty-ninth of January in two batches. The first shipment would be about thirty-five percent, about thirty-five thousand doses. The one from yesterday is saying that we can receive as much as forty thousand doses in the first shipment. So as the vaccines are becoming available then the numbers start moving up.”
That first batch is a percentage of Belize’s total allocation through COVAX, about one hundred thousand eight hundred doses of vaccines. The first batch will include the Astra Zeneca vaccine and is expected to be in country at the end of March or early April. The ministry has been finalising the rollout of the vaccine. Doctor Beer notes that the ministry has some experience in this type of rollout as they had overseen the rollout of the adult immunisation program when the country first got access to the M.M.R. vaccine. This time though, it is a larger population to be vaccinated, and the doses will be received in smaller batches. The Astra Zeneca vaccine is administered in two doses. One question still to be answered is how Belize will make use of its first batch.
Dr. Natalia Beer
“We will need to finalise that decision. Some countries are providing the first dose with the small amount of vaccines they are receiving. Some countries choose to vaccinate according to schedule. So we would have to wait and see what are the amount of vaccines available and what is the best decision for Belize. We have a window period up to one month or up to three months to administer a second dose. Theoretically, the first batch is due first quarter and the second batch is due second quarter.”
“So that would mean sometime by summer you would get the second batch in?”
Dr. Natalia Beer
Some of the determining factors will be the availability of vaccines and the epidemiological profile of the country. And now, who will get first access?
Dr. Natalia Beer
“One has to consider the way how COVID-19 affects the population. The need for healthcare services outside of the COVID-19 disease. The exposure of the healthcare workers, which is greater than any other population of people who may be positive or not positive. So worldwide, it has been agreed that healthcare workers are top of the list. In our case, it would be healthcare workers from the private and public sector. And the second would be the elderly because of the increase in mortality rate with the increase of age when it comes to COVID-19. And then from there, we would focus on persons with risk factors in the other age groups.”
Work is ongoing to enhance the current cold chain storage in country to ensure that Belize can store other vaccines like the Pfizer vaccines, which requires ultra-cold storage. Communication messages to help Belizeans understand the importance of getting vaccinated are being developed.
Dr. Natalia Beer
“I don’t foresee much resistance because COVID-19 is not like other respiratory infections that we have. We must remind ourselves that initially, we thought that it was a respiratory infection, but now we know that the receptors for the virus to enter the body and cause damage is present in many organs. We know it’s a systemic disease and the third factor that we need to remember is that we are having patients now clinically recovered or laboratory recovered, and they are still having signs and symptoms related to COVID-19.”
“For how long?”
Dr. Natalia Beer
“We don’t know. So probably we are facing a new type of chronic illness secondary to COVID-19.”
Which is all the more reason, Doctor Beer expressed, that Belizeans should want to get vaccinated when it becomes available.
Belize is slated to begin receiving COVID-19 vaccines as early as the end of February, along with Caribbean countries. Through the diligent work of COVAX and the World Health Organization, Belize has officially guaranteed vaccinations for approximately 30% of its population, starting with Front Line Workers that includes all resort and hotel staff.
Vaccination will continue through to the second quarter of the year; the announcement came earlier today from the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO).The Caribbean countries with assistance from the InterAmerican Bank are getting the vaccines through COVAX, a coalition led by the World Health Organization (WHO) and Gavi. The thirty-six of the countries and territories participating in COVAX received letters about the estimated number of doses of AstraZeneca vaccine that they could be receiving from the second half of February through the second quarter of 2021. The AstraZeneca vaccine is still under review by WHO for emergency use approval (EUL), which is expected to occur in the next few days.
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Minister of Health and Wellness Michel Chebat discussed the roadmap for the rollout of COVID 19 vaccines a the end of the first quarter: Hon. Michel Chebat, Minister of Health & Wellness
"The COVAX facility has advised us of the intended delivery of a hundred thousand, eight hundred doses of the Astra Zeneca vaccine by the end of the first quarter of this year. This indicative distribution, Madam Speaker, is based on the estimated availability of vaccines from the manufacturers. Apart from the COVAX facility, Madam Speaker, the CARICOM Secretariat has advised us of the opportunity to procure eighty-one thousand, six hundred and ninety-seven doses of vaccines through the African Medical Supplies platform. This is an opportunity offered to CARICOM member states and we have expressed our interest to CARICOM through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Madame Speaker, as well, I am pleased to report that today through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we have indicated to the Russian Federal Republic our acceptance of a donation of twenty thousand dose of the Sputnik 5 vaccine. The priority groups to be vaccinated are healthcare workers from public and private health sector, followed by the elderly population and the population with risk factors. The complete detail of the vaccination roadmap will be shared and publicize for the common good. Notwithstanding the progress we are making the ministry of health and wellness shall be using this time that we have in the lowering of numbers to prepare our medical institutions to confront a third wave."
In about two months, Belize should be getting its first set of COVID-19 vaccines. While it has not been confirmed as yet, there is a high possibility that it is the AstraZenanca/Oxford vaccine that will be heading our way.
But is the Oxford University vaccine good enough? Especially with newer strains developing - like the South African Variant - which shows resistance towards AstraZeneca. Not to mention, this vaccine is reportedly only 70% effective against the virus - as opposed to Pfizer which is 95% effective, or Moderna at 94%.
We asked the acting DHS, Dr Melissa Diaz, and she quelled concerns by explaining why AstraZeneca may be the best option for Belize.
Dr. Melissa Diaz, Acting DHS "As you know that Belize since we've signed up with Covax facility we have been told that more than likely we will be receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine. There is recent information out that it might not be as effective on the South African variant as it is with the original virus and as well with the UK variant. 30% of our vaccines will be coming from this facility, but it doesn't necessarily mean that all the vaccines will be the AstraZeneca vaccines. As well the recent studies didn't show that it was totally ineffective against the south African variant but it does state that it may have less efficacy towards the south african variant."
"At this point our plan is to continue to administer the vaccines as our Covid plan states. The rollout will continue and we are also in discussions trying to make bilateral agreements as well to ensure that we are able to get the other 40% of vaccines that's needed and that does not necessarily mean that it will be AstraZeneca. In fact most countries have continue with their rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccines and AstraZeneca has reported that it is effective against the UK variant as well and some other variants that are not as well-known."
"The Pfizer vaccines, yes that has efficacy in the 90s and Moderna as well. However, if you could recall Pfizer needs the cold chain of less than 70 degrees Celsius which we are not prepared to have at this point. We have been looking into getting some preparation in order to get Pfizer, but it is more than likely the AstraZeneca and some others that are currently in studies and are awaiting approval from a strict regulatory authority, so once that approval has been given to other vaccines, it will also open that opportunity for us to try to procure these other vaccines as well."
"AstraZeneca report fluctuates between 75% up to 82% after the second dose. So, a lot of vaccines, for instance the regular influenza vaccines can range between 60% to 70%. So, if we do get between 75% to 80% efficacy from AstraZeneca that is still a significant accomplishment for us to do. We would still suggest for extreme uptake from the public for the AstraZeneca vaccines. In fact this vaccines is the one used in many countries worldwide and it is extremely efficacious as far as we are concern with regards to Covid even though you may say that it's slower than Pfizer and Moderna. At this point we have to look at the accessibility to AstraZeneca. It's a part of the WHO Covax facility vaccine. It has been given pre=authorization and emergency use authorization. So once all this is in place it can be very easily accessible for many countries in the Caribbean and Central America."
Dr Diaz also noted that the Ministry of Health and Wellness is attempting to procure the Sputnik Vaccine as well, which is said to be 92% effective against COVID-19.
As the Ministry of Health and Wellness Belize prepares for the arrival of the COVID-19 vaccine, here are some important things to know.
The Minstry of Health and Wellness continues to prepare for the arrival of the COVID19 vaccine which we anticipate should be in country towards the end of the first quarter or the beginning of the second quarter of this year. We have started our COVID19 vaccine media campaign and you will be seeing and hearing more from us in the coming days.
We are pleased to share our first production ad on what you need to know at this time about the COVID19 vaccine. Please continue to wear mask properly in public, wash and sanitize hands regularly and continue to maintain physical distance.
According to Prime Minister John Briceño, the government is insisting on its quota of vaccines through COVAX. The government has made a down payment, and the vaccine allocation should cover thirty-percent of the population. The first shipment is expected to arrive at the end of March. Briceño says the Ministry of Health and Wellness has already begun working on a roll-out plan.
Prime Minister John Briceño
“Certainly, the Ministry of Health Minister Chebat has been keeping informed under the COVAX agreement, we are going to get enough for thirty percent of the population. We have already done the down payment. The next step is that the Ministry just at the last cabinet meeting said that he is going to, next week or shortly, will give us a plan as to the roll out for the vaccine. We have already committed that the frontline workers are going to be the first one to get the vaccines. But whilst we working at that, we are looking at other opportunities.”
The Road Map For Vaccination Rollout Begins To Take Shape
Cabinet is starting to announce the road map for the rollout of the COVID 19 vaccine.
Roll out will go in 4 phases, which should start at the end of March. The plan seeks to vaccinate over 200,000 Belizeans in 120 days or four months. The vaccination process will start with healthcare workers, the elderly, vulnerable citizens with mental and physical disabilities, teachers, and other frontline persons.
A Cabinet brief notes the fall in the daily positivity from 20 percent in November and December to the current average daily positivity rate of 4.5%.
In other Cabinet news, Education Minister Francis Fonseca updated Cabinet on the budget consultations with the unions last week. A release offers this, quote: "The Cabinet thoroughly discussed the recommendations and the requests for information that the unions made. There is an agreement to urgently provide a comprehensive response and to have follow-up discussions."
And, there's also news from tourism where the Cabinet gave its approval for the Ministry of Tourism and Diaspora Relations to introduce a long-stay visitor program. It will allow extended visitor permits for targeted visitors and nationalities. This program is aimed at encouraging tourists to stay longer through a "Work Where you Vacation" Program.
Finally, the Government's intention is that stipends paid by public utilities and statutory bodies to non-executive directors be cut by half. This comes into effect next month.