To encourage take-up of Covid-19 vaccine, govt officials will go door-to-door to address concerns, says Singapore health minister

Health Minister Gan Kim Yong speaking to the media on January 19, 2021. — TODAY pic
Health Minister Gan Kim Yong speaking to the media on January 19, 2021. — TODAY pic

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SINGAPORE, Jan 22 — To encourage the take-up of Covid-19 vaccinations, government officials will be going door-to-door to explain why vaccinations are needed and help people make online bookings for their jabs, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said. This is because he knows that there are significant reservations among Singaporeans toward the vaccines.

And if people decline or do not book a slot for the vaccination when offered because they are still undecided about the vaccines, they must “accept the consequences” that if they change their minds later, a ready supply of vaccines may not be available, Education Minister Lawrence Wong said.

Gan did not state when the door-to-door visits will start.

Both ministers, who co-chair the task force leading the national pandemic response, were speaking to the media in a group interview on Tuesday (January 19) to reflect on Singapore’s response to the coronavirus so far, a year after Covid-19 first made landfall here on January 23, 2020. 

TODAY had asked the ministers how they intended to address the issue of vaccine hesitancy, given recent indications that many people here are still undecided about getting the jab.

In response, Wong said that the Government will not reserve a supply of vaccines for when these people change their minds and decide to be vaccinated. Instead, the doses that would have gone to this group will be allocated to others at a “relatively fast clip”.

“We are not trying to hold back or ration the supply Our interest is to get as many people vaccinated as soon as possible. Each time we get the supply (of vaccine doses), we will push them out, we will send out the invites to book (a vaccination slot).

“For those who choose not to take up, it’s your choice, but we will roll out and push out the vaccines regardless.”

He added that for now, the Government is not looking into imposing more restrictions for unvaccinated persons, since there are people who are not advised to be vaccinated due to medical reasons.

A public opinion tracker by online analytics firm YouGov, which looks at how its global users felt about vaccines from November 17 last year to January 10 this year, found that 47 per cent of Singaporean respondents were most likely to take a Covid-19 vaccine, while 34 per cent were undecided and 19 per cent unlikely to do so.

This places Singapore’s vaccine willingness — a term that measures how well a population accepts a vaccine — at 18 out of the 24 countries being tracked, placing just ahead of the United States, which has already vaccinated around 16 million people.

When told of these figures, Gan acknowledged that there are still several unknowns about the new vaccines, including what long-term side effects there may be. Measures have been put in place to monitor the safety of the vaccines and provide regular updates to people, he added.

“There is a lot of work for us to convince the rest who may be adopting a wait-and-see attitude, or those who just decide not to be vaccinated (at all),” Gan said, adding that it may be too late if people decide to get the jab when infection numbers in Singapore have climbed.

He also urged Singaporeans not to propagate falsehoods about the vaccines and rely on information from credible sources, such as from the Ministry of Health (MOH) and reliable news media outlets.

He added that although Singapore has procured enough vaccines for all, the delivery schedule on shipments of vaccines is not fixed. Singapore has received more vaccine shipments after the first one arrived here last December, he said. 

“You know, we don’t receive 100,000 (vials) every week — it’s not a fixed schedule.” The authorities will need to ensure that it has the stock to give people the second dose of the vaccine 21 days after their first jab, he added.

Gan was asked about the recent spate of elderly deaths in Norway, which sparked concern that the vaccines could be unsuitable for those who are very old and terminally ill. Around 33 people in Norway above the age of 75 who had received the vaccine died, though the Norwegian health authorities have since clarified that the deaths were not linked directly to the vaccines.

Speaking in Mandarin, Gan gave assurances that Singapore’s immunisation programme will be done with safety in mind. For example, at the vaccination centres, medical professionals will screen people’s medical history and allergies in detail, in order to determine whether the person is suitable for the jab.

They will be paying special attention to the seniors as well, including those who have health conditions or have illnesses, Gan said.

“At the same time, the vaccines are more critical for the elderly — if they are infected with Covid-19, there is a greater risk to their life. The immunity that vaccines can bring is more important to them, and so we continue to encourage vaccinations for the elderly.” 

On the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, MOH has said that those with chronic illnesses should still receive the vaccine. It also advised women to defer conception for a month after they are vaccinated.

Apart from screening vaccine recipients, infectious diseases experts speaking to TODAY highlighted that it was crucial that the Government put out accurate information about vaccines and take pains to explain the potential adverse effects to the older population as well as their caregivers.

Rophi Clinic’s infectious diseases expert Leong Hoe Nam expects a low pick-up rate among the seniors if they are not properly informed of the vaccine, because many may be illiterate or have little means of travelling to the vaccination centre by themselves. 

“I can imagine many of them would expect the mountain to come to Muhammad,” Dr Leong said.

Associate Professor Hsu Li Yang from the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health pointed to the amount of confusing or misleading messages being spread in messaging groups on the phone and social media, which may exaggerate the concerns and anxieties felt by older residents.

“Greater outreach through the communities they belong to — religious, social, activity-specific, et cetera — will complement current efforts at public education,” Assoc Prof Hsu suggested. — TODAY

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