Spatial analysis done on more than 5 000 communities in the Eastern Cape shows that most people have to travel over five kilometres to access a health facility.

This has resulted in the provincial government considering using schools when the coronavirus vaccine is being rolled out as they are closer to communities in both townships and rural areas.

Like many others, 50-year-old Sindiwe Kameni receives her chronic medication monthly. However, the nearest health facility is 20 kilometres away from her house. Meaning she has to wake up as early as 4AM, to beat the long queues at the clinic. She also has knee problems, and every step she takes is exhausting and painful.

On rainy days, there is a week’s delay in getting her medication, as they are only handed out on specific days.

“I have sleepless nights before I have to go get my medication. I can’t sleep at night. I toss and turn because I’m thinking about the long road I have to travel to go and get my meds, on top of that my knee hurts so so much and I have to keep taking breaks. When I eventually get to the clinic I still have to wait close to 7 hours in the queue before I’m attended to. I fully support the plan to make schools vaccinating sites. At least then, it will be closer, walking distance for me and perhaps shorter cues,” says Kameni.

This is the plight of most residents in some informal settlements and rural parts of the Eastern Cape.

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Plans by the Eastern Cape Department of Health

The provincial government plans to use more than 2 800 schools as vaccination centres in the province. Provincial health is waiting on the National Health Department to guide them on the safety requirements for the vaccination rollout.

“We are looking at engaging the Department of Education and already, we have presented to them to see what we can do, to make schools a suitable vaccination site. We need to observe issues of infection control. We have to also look at the layout for the processing of the vaccination process, to ensure that there is space for vaccination that is secure and also space for waiting, to ensure that when people are vaccinated, they can wait so that we can observe for adverse events. What must be understood is that we’re not going to store vaccines at a school, because the school is not a building for that purpose,” says Dr Sibongile Zungu, the acting provincial Head of Health Department.

Meanwhile, the advisor for the Eastern Cape Premier, Dr Thobile Mbengashe, says a collaborative effort by the provincial Department of Health will ensure that the rollout of the vaccine is a success.

“We are going to be working with a lot of partners because vaccination is actually much easier than treating patients. With vaccination you have got one useful effective intervention which is a vaccine that needs a simple system to administer, in this case you need a vaccine, you need an injection and it’s actually not invasive in your body because it just goes onto your muscle, that can be done by very well trained lower levels health professionals under the guidance of higher people. So we anticipate that the task shifting and really moving and using some of the people that we have, we are going to be able. What’s going to be important about the vaccine programme is that has to be used from the bottom and we need to bring it to where people live. We are going to be using multi facilities, like clinics, hospitals, non-health systems, where people are working, where people are staying – community halls,” says Mbengashe.

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However, unions have given conditional approval for the use of schools to administer COVID-19 vaccinations in the province.

“As a union, we will always support anything that improves the lives of our people especially something that is going to help our people fight against the virus. So we fully support the use if schools as vaccine sites, but we ask that the school be left the way they were and that all safety protocols be observed so that even during vaccination no one gets infected,” says Chris Mdingi, SADTU provincial secretary.

The Eastern Cape Health Department says it plans to vaccinate 3.7 million people within six to nine months.