Vaccine shortage forces PHCs in Tamil Nadu to turn away villagers; Health Minister Harsh Vardhan says ‘no vaccine shortage’

In the last two weeks, states including Maharashtra, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, have reported COVID19 vaccine shortage. Now, primary health centres in Coimbatore and Tiruppur districts of Tamil Nadu are being forced to turn away villagers due to stock-out of vaccine doses. But, Health Minister Harsh Vardhan today emphasised “no shortage of vaccine” in India.

Pankaja Srinivasan
| Updated: April 17th, 2021

PHCs in Coimbatore and Tiruppur districts of Tamil Nadu have run out of their vaccine stocks. Health ministers says no shortage. Pic: Internet

Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu

As India is swept by a massive second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, coronavirus cases are rising in Tamil Nadu where the state assembly elections wound up on April 6. Yesterday, on April 16, the southern state recorded 8,449 fresh COVID-19 cases and 33 deaths, the highest daily infections in the state this year. 

While corona cases are registering a sharp spike, primary health centres (PHCs) in Coimbatore and Tiruppur districts have run out of their vaccine stocks and are being forced to turn away villagers, who are coming there for the COVID-19 vaccination. 

“We have administered two thousand nine hundred and forty nine doses in the past two months,” N Rajkumar, block medical officer,  Kanjampatti block, Pollachi South in Coimbatore, told Gaon Connection. “We replenished our stock last week with five hundred doses but ran out a couple of days ago,” Rajkumar said. He was however confident that a fresh consignment of vaccines would arrive soon. “We will resume vaccinating as soon as the consignment arrives,” he said. 

However, the Union health minister Harsh Vardhan today said there was no vaccine shortage in India.

Also Read: COVID19: Which states in India are reporting ‘vaccine shortage’? Details here

About 50 kilometres away from  Kanjampatti, in Pollachi, a similar scenario unfolded at Semmipalayam in Palladam block of Tiruppur. Semmipalayam PHC ran out of vaccines yesterday (April 16) after it administered 356 doses. “We had to turn away so many people yesterday, and they were most upset with us. We had to tell them we were helpless as we were yet to receive the stocks from our headquarters at Tiruppur,” N Sudarvizhi, the PHC’s block medical officer told Gaon Connection.

Semmipalayam has administered 6,000 doses of the Covishield vaccine since March this year. The PHC hopes to get a fresh consignment on April 19. “But we have so far received no official intimation,” Sundarvizhi said.

Kanjampatti PHC, Pollachi South block, Tamil Nadu, has run out of vaccine. Pic: By arrangement.

According to news reports, Tamil Nadu has a rapidly depleting stock of 741,000 doses of Covishield and 175,000 doses of Covaxin left. In the last few weeks, several states in India have reported vaccine shortage which has hit the country’s vaccination drive. 

On April 7, Rajesh Tope, the health minister of Maharashtra, the state worst affected by COVID-19, had warned that the state had vaccine ‘stocks to last only 3 days’. Several vaccination centres in the state had run out of vaccine doses. 

The same day, Naba Kisor Das, Odisha’s health minister, wrote to the Union health minister, Harsh Vardhan, informing him that by April 9, the state would have exhausted its stock of Covishield. He asked for a supply of at least 10 days stock — 2.5 million vaccine doses. The letter also informed the central government that “due to shortage of vaccine, we have had to close nearly 700 vaccination centres in the State”. Of the total 1,400 functional sites for vaccination, only 755 were active on April 7.

Semmipalayam PHC in Palladam block of Tiruppur district, Tamil Nadu. Pic: By arrangement

Similar reports of vaccine shortage have been pouring from other states such as Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Delhi. But, the Union health minister, in his statement issued on April 7, said that “allegations of vaccine shortage are utterly baseless”.

Also Read: ‘Allegations of vaccine shortage are utterly baseless’: Health Minister Harsh Vardhan

No vaccine in PHCs

The Kanjampatti block, Pollachi South, with its limpid pools and lush coconut plantations, is made up of 26 village panchayats and three town panchayats (Zamin Uthukli, Samathur and Suleeswaranpatti), and lies approximately 540 kilometres south west of the state capital, Chennai. 

In the past two months, the PHC, has been receiving a satisfying number of people coming here to be vaccinated. 

The PHC has been administering the Covishield vaccine. The maximum doses administered in a day was 280, but usually it is between 40 and 50 a day, Rajkumarhe said, but, on April 15, the PHC ran out of vaccines and had to turn people away.

Rajkumar assured those who were scheduled for the second round of the vaccination, that they were under no threat if they pushed back their vaccination dates. “The initial advisory of twenty eight days between the two rounds of vaccination was to get as many people vaccinated as quickly as possible to minimise the risk of getting COVID,” he said. But, it is now advised that the second round be administered after a longer gap. “The longer the interval between the two doses, the better,” he said. 

Also Read: Immediate moratorium on vaccine export, give states a greater say in vaccine procurement: Rahul Gandhi writes to PM Modi

Rural Tamil Nadu did not warm up to vaccinations straight away. “We were slow to start, but the pace quickly picked up and there has been a good show of people presenting themselves to be vaccinated,” C Kaliappan, block health supervisor of Pollachi South, told Gaon Connection. According to him, after the initial hesitation, people began to come in greater numbers. 

Kaliappan with a team of health workers was on his way to collect swabs at a mill in the area, the owners of which had tested positive. “There is a [vaccine] shortage, but it will be addressed soon,” Kaiappan was optimistic. He said once the vaccine shortages in the urban areas were addressed, the rural centres would get their supply. 

Semmipalayam PHC in Palladam block of Tiruppur is facing vaccine shortage. Pic: By Arrangement

About 50 kms away from Kanjampatti, Semmipalayam PHC in Palladam block of Tiruppur district is facing similar shortage. Just over a month ago, when Gaon Connection had visited the PHC at Semmipalayam,there were but a handful of people, many of them reluctant, waiting to be vaccinated. 

“But things are very different now,” said Sudarvizhi, who said a large number of people are turning up now. 

Also Read: ‘By 9th April, stock-out of Covishield vaccine in the entire state’: Odisha govt writes to health minister Harsh Vardhan

Three or four big industries located in the area also approached the Semmipalayam PHC to administer vaccines to its employees. “We went to the companies and administered nearly a hundred vaccines in each place,” she said. Even last week several other companies approached the block medical officer, but she had to decline as the stocks were dwindling and the village people were the first priority, she explained.  

Semmipalayam PHC ran out of vaccine doses on April 16. Sudarvizhi attributed the surge in demand for vaccines to an increased awareness and the reports of the relentless rise in coronavirus cases in the state.

Amid the rising concern of vaccine shortage being felt in the country, in a major shift in vaccine approval policy, on April 13, the Indian government decided to fast track approvals for COVID-19 vaccines that have been developed outside India and have been granted the ‘emergency use authorisation’ (EUA) by other drug regulatory agencies.

The vaccines that will be eligible for the fast-track approval will include those that have been granted an EUA by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, European Medicines Agency, UK Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, and the Pharmaceuticals and Medical Devices Agency of Japan, and those that have been prequalified by the World Health Organization WHO for emergency use. This would mean that Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson and Johnson vaccines would be eligible for fast-track approval in India. Also, as per news reports, the first batch of Russia’s COVID-19 vaccine Sputnik V will be delivered to India this month.

Also Read: Ripple effect of COVID-19’s second wave in India being felt across the globe