23 May 2024

The third wave of COVID-19 that rolled into Thailand last month has rocked not just the fragile economic recovery but also the government’s vaccination plans.

The resurgent virus has spawned serious outbreaks in the key economic hub of Bangkok and its vicinity, leaving the government scrambling to redeploy its limited supply of vaccine to COVID hotspots.

“The focus should now be on Greater Bangkok,” said former deputy public health minister Dr. Surapong Suebwonglee. Surapong, also a former deputy PM, is a member of the CARE political group launched by ex-Thai Rak Thai members.

Refocus recommended

He urged the government to focus its vaccination efforts more on the capital in order to contain the contagion and get the economy rolling.

At least two-thirds of new COVID-19 cases since April 1 have been recorded in Bangkok and five adjacent provinces – Samut Prakan, Nonthaburi, Pathum Thani, Nakhon Pathom, and Samut Sakhon.

“Vaccination in this situation is crucial for controlling the outbreak and reviving the economy,” said the ex-minister, adding that if the country’s main economic powerhouse is restricted, the rest of the nation will also feel the pinch.

Surapong said the Prayut Chan-o-cha government should understand that to achieve herd immunity, not all 50 million people or 70 per cent of Thailand’s population had to be inoculated at the same time.

If the focus is on vaccinating 70 percent of people in each of Thailand’s 77 provinces, then achieving herd immunity may be too slow to reduce damages from COVID-19, he added.

“Since the epicenter of the current outbreak is in Greater Bangkok, the vaccine rollout should be concentrated there.”

Senator Dr Chalermchai Boonyaleepun, who is deputy chair of the Senate committee on public health, said jabs and lockdown measures should be deployed urgently in parts of Bangkok where current restrictions have failed to curb infections.

As of press time, COVID-19 had infected 86,924 people in Thailand, claiming 452 lives.

‘Vaccine hesitancy’ bites in Thailand – but one province has the antidote

At a time when Thailand is struggling to convince its citizens to sign up for free COVID-19 vaccination, Lampang has recorded remarkable success, getting all eligible residents to register for jabs. A total of 223,796 residents of the northern province have already booked COVID-19 shots, filling the slots reserved for at-risk people.

Government response

The government’s priority up until Tuesday afternoon was to inoculate the 11.4 million citizens aged over 60 and 4.3 million people with chronic conditions including respiratory disease, heart or artery conditions, kidney disease, stroke, obesity, cancer or diabetes.

Vaccination booking for these priority groups opened on May 1, with jabs to be administered from June when Thailand starts producing vaccines.

So far, the country has acquired just 117,000 doses of AstraZeneca and 3.5 million doses of Sinovac vaccine. These have been allocated to medical workers; at-risk areas such as Samut Sakhon, a hotspot in the second wave; and Phuket, which plans to welcome foreign tourists without quarantine from July 1.

Another 2.5 million doses of Sinovac vaccine are scheduled to arrive later this month, but the entire supply will only be enough for about 10 percent of the population. Hence, experts say, if the country’s inoculation plan is not adjusted right away, recovery from the outbreak will be slow.

Vice Minister for Public Health Dr. Sophon Mekthon, speaking in his capacity as chair of a subcommittee on COVID-19 vaccine management, announced Tuesday evening that the distribution plan was adjusted.

“Registration for vaccines is high in Bangkok and adjacent provinces,” he said, adding that as many as 41 percent of residents here had booked jabs.

“So we will reallocate available doses with a focus on Greater Bangkok where the situation is most serious. We now intend to inoculate 70 percent of Bangkok residents within two months.”

How BMA can help

Bangkok Governor Aswin Kwanmuang has targeted vaccination for 70 percent of the capital’s 7 million residents, aided by private-sector jab stations in factories and offices being set up from Wednesday (May 12).

But although the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) is coordinating with businesses to set up vaccination venues, it has no power to procure the vaccines.

And while the capital has received the highest number of doses – 315,504 as of May 9 – getting 70 percent of Bangkok’s 10 million people vaccinated is still a distant prospect.

BMA permanent secretary Silapasuai Rawisaengsun said City Hall hoped to get medical workers and at-risk people jabbed as soon as possible, but everything depended on the central government.

“The government is in charge of COVID-19 vaccine distribution and strategy,” she said.

Explainer: Thailand’s vaccine plans and rollout timeline

About 1.3 million Thais have been vaccinated by the Thai government so far, with over 510 ,000 people having received both doses of either Sinovac’s CoronaVac or the AstraZeneca version , mainly the former .

Supply key to survival

Meanwhile, Samut Sakhon province, epicenter of the second wave, has only received about 208,000 doses so far, said Samut Sakhon Hospital director Dr Anukul Thaitanundr.

“The latest batch for our province should have been 100,000 doses, but due to outbreaks elsewhere, we only got 7,840 doses,” he said.

So far, only 12.48 percent of Samut Sakhon’s 1.12 million people have received jabs.

Citing countries where infection rates have plummeted after mass vaccination, Surapong said inoculation is the key to controlling the virus that is wreaking havoc across the world.

Phuket, which launched a vaccination drive in preparation for its opening in July, has recorded just 308 new cases in the ongoing third wave, and no fatalities.

Though the vaccines currently available may not provide 100-per-cent protection from the virus, they have proven to be extremely effective in preventing hospitalization and death.

By Thai PBS World’s General Desk