The Minister of Health and Wellness Dr Christopher Tufton has named a National COVID-19 Vaccination Commission that will oversee the rollout of a COVID-19 vaccine in Jamaica beginning around April next year.

While it is welcome news that Jamaicans will have access to a vaccine within a matter of months, the reality, as announced by Tufton in the House of Representatives on Tuesday is that a mere 16 per cent of Jamaicans would have received the jab against the coronavirus by the end of 2021. This means that Jamaicans will likely remain under some form of COVID-19 restrictions for at least the next 12 months. This, since up to 70 per cent or more of a population must be vaccinated to slow/prevent the spread of the virus, according to leading health experts.

“The expectation is that, in the first instance, Jamaica will vaccinate 16 per cent of our population with the goal to protect public health and minimise the economic impact by reducing COVID-19 mortality. The intention is to prioritise the vaccination of our health workers who are at the very high risk of acquiring and transmitting infection and our older adults who we understand are among the most vulnerable to adverse outcomes and death associated with COVID-19 infection,” Tufton said.

“The projected schedule is to have a vaccine ready for administration to some one per cent of the initial 16 per cent of the population by April 2021, another three per cent by mid-2021 and the remaining percentage by the end of 2021,” Tufton added.

He told the House that while things could change, it was important to be transparent with the likely scheduling and the quantities that would be available during this period.

“I want us to be clear that we can’t hang all of our hopes, and afford to be complacent on the knowledge or the hope that there’s going to be a vaccine very soon and that most persons are going to have access to it. That is an ideal but an ideal that is not likely to be achieved at least in the short-term,” the minister stated.

As such, Tufton said it was therefore important that we maintain our vigilance with our other response measures. “The fact is that we have another year or so before I think we will be in a position where the world can breathe a sigh of relief based on vaccination as a solution (when) significant progress would have been made. We therefore have to manage the process very carefully”.

Tufton told the House that the members of the Commission include representatives of the Ministry of Health and Wellness, the National Health Fund, the Ministry of Finance and the Public Service, the Medical Association of Jamaica, the Nurses Association of Jamaica, the Jamaica Medical Doctors Association, the University of the West Indies, the Jamaica Council of Churches, the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica and the Jamaica Defence Force.

Among the responsibilities of the Commission are to:

– provide guidance and oversight in the development of a National COVID-19 Deployment and Vaccination Plan for the introduction of COVID-19 vaccines;

– provide oversight in the designing of strategies for the deployment, implementation and monitoring of a COVID-19 vaccine(s) in Jamaica;

– provide guidance in ensuring that the plan and related financing is well aligned to other national COVID-19 recovery and response and support plans, and that implementation is fully integrated and coordinated;

– guide the establishment of an operations process for coordination, information and communication;

– provide guidance in the design and implementation of a public education campaign; and

– support the implementation of health services readiness and capacity assessments to identify bottlenecks and guide delivery of vaccines and other essential supplies.

“Among other things, the Commission will also, to the extent possible, facilitate cooperation at policy, technical and local levels between government, non-governmental, private sector agencies or organisation, and civil society in the process of the plan’s development and implementation,” Tufton added.

“With more than 66 million people globally having become infected by the virus and more than 1.5 million having lost their lives, vaccination as a response to containing the disease cannot be overlooked,” the minister stressed.

“Here in Jamaica, with more than 11,000 infections and 265 deaths, vaccination must form a part of our COVID-19 response efforts,” he continued.

Tufton acknowledged that the issue of a COVID-19 vaccine “has been a source of anxiety for some as we continue to navigate the new normal imposed by the pandemic”.

As such, he said the Ministry of Health & Wellness and the Government of Jamaica would seek to ensure that COVID-19 vaccination is administered safely. To that end, he said that a National Vaccination and Deployment Plan is being developed for consideration by the Commission. The elements of that plan include the management structure; a review of the legal framework; demand generation and communication; training; vaccine cold chain and logistics; safety surveillance; and information systems.

“Once finalised, the plan will be shared with the members of this honourable House and the people of Jamaica in whose best interest we are operating as we seek to secure for them the best possible health outcomes from COVID-19,” the minister told the Parliament.