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Will rules relax, who’s first? Vaccine questions answered

Credit: Belga

Belgium announced its coronavirus vaccination strategy on Thursday, with the main focus on the order of priority groups to receive the vaccine. A lot of questions, however, were left unanswered.

Who will get which vaccine?

Logistics will play a large part in deciding who will get which vaccine, according to infectious disease expert Erika Vlieghe, who is closely involved in Belgium’s vaccination strategy.

Pfizer’s vaccine, for example, must be kept at -75 degrees, making it difficult to get it into people’s homes. It can, however, easily be stored in a freezer in a hospital.

Belgium expects to receive 600,000 doses of the Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine in January, which will allow 300,000 people to be vaccinated. As the first priority group will be residents and staff in care centres, the Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine will likely go to them.

In total, Belgium has subscribed to five vaccines via the European Union. If all the candidate vaccines will be approved, Belgium will receive a total of 22.4 million vaccine doses.

Depending on the composition, effectiveness and availability of the other vaccines, it will be decided later on who gets which vaccine, according to Vlieghe.

Who is going to administer the vaccines?

Most of the vaccines will be administered by nurses and healthcare workers. In the meantime, pharmacists and home nurses have also come forward to assist in the first rounds of vaccination.

Additionally, general practitioners will also play a crucial role, as vaccination centres to be set up at a later stage, must be populated with medical staff, including general practitioners. Although there too, nursing staff will have to be considered in the first instance.

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In the future, collecting the coronavirus vaccine from the pharmacist and having it administered by your general practitioner, like the flu vaccine now, could become a possibility as well.

When will those vaccination centres be opened?

From March 2021 – depending on the availability of the vaccines – the existing Covid-19 testing centres will be converted into vaccination centres.

It is still unclear exactly where they will be located and how they will be equipped.

When a sufficient supply of vaccines is available in Phase 2, it may also be possible for vaccination to take place in companies and schools during this phase.

Can the order of priority groups still change?

The order will stay the same, according to Vlieghe, but it is possible that some specific groups of people will still be added.

Once the entire healthcare sector has been vaccinated, people over 65 years old and people between 45 and 65 years old with underlying conditions will be vaccinated, but the list of conditions that is not complete yet.

People with diabetes, for example, will belong to that group, but there are undoubtedly many people with other serious diseases who also need the vaccinated quickly, according to Vlieghe. People who live with someone with a serious disease should also be considered.

Additionally, the criteria for people working in an essential profession have not been defined yet either. According to Flanders’ Education Minister, teachers should also be part of that essential workers group.

Once all priority groups have been vaccinated, it will be the rest of the population’s turn. However, that “rest” consists of millions of people, Vlieghe said, adding that an order has not been decided on yet.

Can the coronavirus measures then finally be lifted or relaxed?

There will be no separate relaxations for the people who have already had their injection, according to Vlieghe. “When you make a distinction between vaccinated and non-vaccinated people, it gets incredibly complicated,” she said on Flemish television on Thursday evening.

“We are all in this together, until the end. We must all stick to the measures, until we have achieved sufficient immunity as a society,” Vlieghe said.

“Additionally, there is still a lot of uncertainty about how infectious a vaccinated person still is. It could be, for example, that a vaccine protects you, but you can still transmit the virus,” she said. “For the time being, therefore, we cannot do without face masks and quarantine for vaccinated people.”

Vlieghe also stressed that what she calls the ‘luxury use’ of the vaccine, such as for travelling, will not happen. “The vaccine is for medical protection,” she said.

Will there be vaccination campaigns?

Yes. Within the vaccination strategy working group, former rector of the Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB) Yvon Englert, has been appointed to come up with a targeted communication strategy.

An online list of frequently asked questions about coronavirus vaccines will be made available, and healthcare personnel will be called in to convince as many people as possible to be vaccinated.

Finally, the government also wants to launch large-scale (advertising) campaigns. What that will mean exactly is not yet clear, but they will “start from the concerns of citizens, and there will be extra attention for vulnerable groups.”

How long will it take before everyone has been vaccinated?

Vlieghe does not want to name a specific time frame or calender, as a lot will depend on the vaccine producers.

On Thursday, Federal Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke already said that he feared vaccinating 11 million Belgians would take a whole year.

“The minister is an extremely cautious man. I think it is a good thing to be careful and cautious and not to promise people anything that you cannot promise,” Vlieghe said. “It depends on a lot of things that are still a bit elusive: how fast is production going, and how many vaccines are we going to get.”

However, it is best not to assume that next summer will be a normal one. “2021 will be a year of transition, and that transitional period will not be easy,” she said.

“It is a bit like doing exams: it is only done after the last one, but you can already start dreaming about what you are going to do when all exams are over.”

Maïthé Chini
The Brussels Times