Covid-19: Challenges remain despite quickening vaccine rollout in Republic

Failure to reach targets means it will be autumn by the time all adults will be immunised

The aim had been to give 4.5 million doses in Ireland by the end of June; with 3.5 million done so far, it looks like we might fall about 500,000 short of this target. Photograph: Kiran Ridley/Getty Images

The aim had been to give 4.5 million doses in Ireland by the end of June; with 3.5 million done so far, it looks like we might fall about 500,000 short of this target. Photograph: Kiran Ridley/Getty Images

 

The quickening pace of the Covid-19 vaccine rollout may be deflecting attention from challenges down the line that could have profound societal impacts.

A failure to reach targets that were specified earlier in the rollout means it will be well into the autumn before all adults are offered the chance to be immunised.

For some, this will serve as a dampener on the prospects of a foreign holiday. For others, the implications could be more serious; succumbing to the virus, for example, or having to return to the classroom in September as a young teacher without being fully vaccinated.

The delay in the rollout is mostly due to shortfalls in supply of the vaccines, but another factor has been the various decisions – taken for valid clinical reasons – to restrict administration of some vaccines to specific age groups. Because the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines were in short supply anyway, these restrictions have had only limited impact on the size of the rollout so far, but this could change as the summer wears on.

After a difficult start, there is no doubt the HSE and other parts of the health service have excelled in the delivery of vaccines to the public. About 320,000 doses were administered last week and about 330,00 are due to be given this week.

By and large, vaccines have been given out as quickly as they have arrived in Ireland. By now, as many will attest, the large vaccination centres are running like clockwork.

However, the original Government target of administering 450,000 doses a week at the peak will not be reached, particularly since the more recent undersupply of vaccines, this time involving Johnson & Johnson. Neither, thanks to this supply deficit, will the promise of giving at least one dose to 82 per cent of the population by the end of this month be reached.

Supplies

The aim had been to give 4.5 million doses by the end of June; with 3.5 million done so far, it looks like we might fall about 500,000 short of this target. This is not a big deal; the target is likely to be reached a few weeks later than planned.

Internationally, Ireland seems to be slightly ahead of the EU for administration of first doses, and close to it for the proportion of fully vaccinated people.

But after the high water mark of these weeks, as we reach the halfway point, the nature of the programme changes. AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson effectively bow out, and our rollout will be exclusively reliant on Pfizer and, to a lesser extent, Moderna.

Frontloading of Pfizer supplies will see more than 300,000 doses delivered this week, and the same again next week, but then deliveries are due to fall back to a more regular 180,000 a week.

The department hasn’t published one of its vaccine delivery updates since May 12th so it is hard to be certain about how fast the rollout can go. But on the basis of the limited figures available the current momentum will not be sustained.

The massive uptake of vaccines among older age groups serves to delay their administration to younger people. With registration of people in their thirties beginning now, it seems likely the administration of first doses to this group will last the whole of July, and possibly beyond. Second doses will follow at a four-week interval.

Teachers

It may be well into August before the rollout gets to people in their twenties, and October before it is finished with this group.

When you consider the median age of primary school teachers is around 30, it is clear many will not be fully vaccinated when schools return at the start of September. Other young workers in potentially risky occupations, from shop staff to gardaí, will be similarly under-protected at a time when the Delta variant could be gaining the upper hand.

The authorities have shown themselves averse to tinkering with the age-based approach to the vaccine rollout, but there could still be good grounds for prioritising at-risk groups should the more transmissible Delta variant surge.

Cases among 19-24 year olds are already three times higher than among the 25-34 age group. The experience of the UK, where more cases are ending up in hospital, shows these infections are not without consequence.

Given how high education is in the Government’s pandemic priorities – even though classrooms were shut for months this year – Ministers will surely want to ensure schools are as safe as possible when they reopen. The trade-off for unvaccinated teachers could be a continuing mask mandate, to the detriment of students who have to wear them.

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