Paid shots from March 1 as India expands Covid-19 vaccine drive
Anyone above the age of 60 or above 45 and with existing illnesses that make them more vulnerable to Covid-19 will be allowed to sign up to receive coronavirus vaccines at government as well as private hospitals from March 1, the Union Cabinet decided on Wednesday.
The decision marks a significant opening up of the vaccination drive, with the roll-out for the general public being moved up from the previously estimated window of mid-March, and comes at a time when the country is on the brink of a second wave of infections.
“The second phase of the world’s largest vaccination drive will start from Monday in which anybody above 60 years and 45 years plus with co-morbidities will be given vaccines in 10,000 government medical facilities and also over 20,000 private hospitals,” said information and broadcasting minister Prakash Javadekar at the briefing on Cabinet decisions.
The doses at the government centres will be free. Private hospitals will be allowed to charge for them, but the rate will be fixed and announced by the government at a later date. This is the first time the private sector will be actively involved in administering vaccines, and doses will be available to eligible people who are willing to pay.
While most of the details of the protocols are yet to be finalised, an official said that the sign-ups will initially be allowed through the Aarogya Setu mobile application, which was launched last year as a digital contact tracing tool.
“To begin with, the population that is eligible to take the vaccine will be asked to download the Aarogya Setu app. There will be an option under the Co-WIN section where they can register and book an appointment for vaccination,” said a senior government official, privy to the matter, asking not to be named.
Once registered, people may also be able to walk in to get their doses, as is the case at present for those eligible at the moment, this person added.
For those with comorbid conditions, the government is expected to release a list of qualifying diseases in the coming days.
“Gradually, there may also be helplines, interactive voice response (IVR) system option for those with basic phones, and also a web portal for registration -- but the start will happen through the Aarogya Setu app,” the official said.
At vaccination sites, those seeking a dose will need to prove their identity by showing a government-issued identity card.
India launched the coronavirus vaccination campaign on January 16, and in the period since, a little over 11 million people have received at least one dose. Experts believe now is the time to rapidly ramp up the campaign, since India’s cases have begun to inch up and several states are showing a resurgence.
“So far we have immunised only 1% of our population, while Israel has immunised 85%, and the US 23%. At the current pace, we will not be able to achieve the target even by the end of the year. We have to speed up the vaccination drive at least six to ten times,” said Dr SK Sarin, director of the Institute of Liver and Biliary Sciences, who headed the Delhi government’s first committee on controlling and managing Covid-19 infections.
At least one of the ways in which it can be done is by opening up the campaign to anyone willing to take shots, particularly since the turnout till now has been a little over 50% of the targeted vaccination per day.
“I think, if we need to achieve our target we need to have vaccination in more and more places, we have to open it up in a manner that those who are willing to take the vaccine are allowed to come rather than calling people and them not turning up,” said Dr Randeep Guleria, director, All India Institute of Medical Sciences.
Guleria added that people in high risk group residing in regions seeing a spurt in infections should be immunised quickly “as it will help in decreasing the mortality and hospitalisations”.
The situation is now a race against time for India to build up immunity among its population faster than the virus can spread. The discovery of mutated variants, announced by the government on Tuesday, further threatens the country’s grip on the epidemic, receded to its lowest levels less than a fortnight ago.
According to the official quoted above, sign-ups will open in a few days and those who receive at least one dose can download a QR-code based certificate through the mobile app, as well as awareness material about vaccines and vaccine-related statistics from across the country.
“This section is being further modified to allow beneficiaries to also book an appointment,” said a second official, who asked not to be named.
“We are waiting to hear from the government to know what the guidelines are. Now that we have seen in past one month that CoWIN works well, we are confident that scaling up can happen in days. But we will totally abide by government instructions to know how many vaccinations they want us to do in a day, whether we will be allowed to procure directly from manufacturers or the government will provide us with the vaccine,” said Dr Anupam Sibal, group medical director, Apollo Hospitals.