Last week, India administered its billionth COVID-19 vaccine dose. What for many countries would be considered an impossible feat, is only the accomplishment of a part of India’s larger target of vaccinating all eligible adults by December 31st. Although India’s vaccination campaign has picked up pace since it began on January 16, 2021, only 31% of the eligible adult population had been fully vaccinated by October 21st. The sheer scale of the effort also disguises wide variations in state-wise vaccination coverage. Therefore, in order to consolidate our mammoth vaccination effort and guide it to a successful culmination, there is a need for proactive policy steps to identify and inoculate the most vulnerable Indians.
A better targeted and data driven vaccination effort is also a chance to lock in gains achieved so far, and help states phase out non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPI) like curfews and lockdowns, which have caused immense economic hardships across the country. To do this, a group of policy experts have recommended grading different districts on a matrix of factors that determine their overall vulnerability to a new wave of infections. According to these experts, predominantly drawn from the Indian Institute of Public Health, authorities need to implement a ‘sentinel surveillance’ programme across Public Health Centres, to gather data on seroprevalence and vaccination coverage among the local population, along with information on severe symptoms and mortality.
This information can then be used to target areas with low seroprevalence and low vaccination rates, which would be most at risk in any ensuing wave of COVID-19 infections. Apart from accelerating vaccination efforts in these districts and sub-districts, the data collected will also inform decisions to implement NPIs, and steps to protect vulnerable demographic groups, like over-60s who haven’t been fully vaccinated yet. At the other extreme, areas with high seroprevalence and high vaccination coverage can see a quicker return to normalcy, without requiring specially focussed vaccination efforts.
Other measures recommended to improve the vaccination rate and mitigate the risk of infections are to ensure supply of vaccines to states with a relatively lower coverage, and improving healthcare setups in states with a larger proportion of unvaccinated over-60s. Apart from that, authorities can promote health education and vaccine awareness campaigns too. India’s largest vaccine awareness drive, Network18 Sanjeevani – A Shot Of Life, a Federal Bank Ltd. CSR initiative, has led the way with targeted mass media campaigns, to inform people of the importance of getting vaccinated, and encouraging them to follow safety protocols. Although the first signs of success are now visible, it also serves as a powerful reminder of the need to do more.