Health workers in Pantar find ways to address COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy

PANTAR, Lanao del Norte  (MindaNews / 25 March) — The spread of unverified information and the lifting of mandatory COVID-19 restrictions when entering shopping malls and crossing provincial borders are the main reasons behind the low turnout for vaccination against severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the virus that causes COVID-19, in Lanao del Norte, health officials said. 

Dr. David Mendoza, chief of the Department of Health 10 local health division said residents were hesitant to go for vaccination despite efforts of rural health teams in reaching out to the target population, including those in the last mile communities or geographically isolated and disadvantaged areas (GIDAs).

“Until now, there is still vaccine hesitancy despite our efforts to improve our risk communications and intensify advocacy campaigns,” Mendoza said.

A nurse administers a booster COVID-19 vaccine to a resident in her house in Pantar town, Lanao del Norte on February 2, 2023. MindaNews photo by FROILAN GALLARDO

Dr. Hapsa Salic Batuan, head of the Pantar town Rural Health Unit, narrated how  her small team of nurses has been going house-to-house six days a week since January, appealing to residents to be vaccinated. 

“But we have been getting so much resistance. Many no longer want to be vaccinated because they think the danger of being infected is gone,” she said.

She said many of her townmates were willing to be vaccinated when policemen manning checkpoints were still actively checking on everyone for their vaccination cards.

“It used to be that checkpoints in the malls and highways were very strict in checking the vaccination cards. Now there is no checking anymore,” she noted. 

She recalled that security guards at the shopping malls in Iligan and Cagayan de Oro, would not allow entry to anyone without a vaccination card.

“Almost everyone would beg to be inoculated so they can get the vaccination card. There were long lines at our health unit office. Now these lines are gone,” Batuan said.

After the COVID-19 restrictions were relaxed last year, Batuan said the enthusiasm to be vaccinated waned among the residents here, especially because they can already enter shopping malls without wearing facemasks and having no vaccination cards.

More unvaccinated than vaccinated

In its March 12, 2023 report, the Department of Health (DOH 10) had set the target population for vaccination in Pantar at 16,489 residents out of its 26,599 total population as of the May 2020 national census. 

The DOH 10 said some 10,921 residents or 66.2 % out of the target population remain unvaccinated

Despite the efforts of Batuan and her team of nurses, the DOH 10 said only 5,568 residents or only 33.8%  received the first dose of vaccine and an even lower figure — only 4,914 residents or 29.2%  got their second dose.

For the first booster shot, only 1,141 residents (6.8%) were vaccinated and only 271 residents (1,6%) for the second booster. 

A resident has his blood pressure taken by a nurse in Pantar town, Lanao del Norte, prior to vaccination against COVID-19. MindaNews photo by FROILAN GALLARDO

Pantar is among the 13 municipalities in Lanao del Norte’s 22 towns, which has high vaccine hesitancy among residents. Most of these towns are located in the hinterlands of the province.

Among the towns with high vaccine hesitancy are Sultan Naga Dimaporo with 20,278 residents unvaccinated; Munai with 15,693,  Poona Piagapo with 15,069, Pantao Ragat with 12,40, Magsaysay, 8,927 and Kapatagan with 7,353.

Batuan said unverified information on the COVID-19 vaccines  has  been a problem since the DOH started its vaccination program in Pantar town and other areas in Lanao del Norte.

“Fake news,” fake vaccination cards

“At the onset of the pandemic, news and commentary programs aired fake news about the vaccine, including turning vaccinees into zombies. “This stuck on their minds,” she said. 

She said the DOH tried many ways to counter the wrong information but the misconceptions about the vaccines became pervasive among residents. 

Batuan said they also found that there was a rampant use of fake vaccination cards to get around police checkpoints and fool security  guards in the shopping malls.

She said most of the fake vaccination cards were sourced in Marawi City, some 12 kilometers from Pantar town, where these are sold in stalls selling other counterfeit products.

“It used to be the going rate of the fake card was P2,500. It is now only P500 as the demand has slowed down, “ Batuan said.

Nurse Hairan Disomimba Campong said these are the challenges met by the nurses from Pantar rural health unit when they made their rounds in the villages.

Campong cited an incident where a retired government employee showed them his fake vaccination card to fool them.

 “We can easily recognize the card was fake because it was a wrong design,” Campong said.

Campong said some residents would hide when they saw their team approaching their villages. Others would feign sickness, she said.

“Yet rain or shine we continue to do our rounds. Despite the challenges, we know it is our job,” Campong said.

Booster shots

DOH Officer in charge Rosario Vergeire told the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee earlier this month that 94.62 percent or 73.8 million of the eligible population are already fully vaccinated, which is at par with or way higher than other countries.

However, Vergeire reported that only 27.65 percent or 21.5 million went for booster shots. 

“Unfortunately, until now the (vaccination) rates are still the same” but, she added,  “we have tried to integrate already the COVID-19 vaccination in our regular community programs whereby the vaccines nw are more accessible to our Filipino people. Anytime and anywhere, they can already access the vaccines through their health facilities,” she noted

Vergeire said 15.3 million doses were still stored in the DOH national warehouse with 13,000 doses set to expire by the end of May 2023 while the succeeding expiry date of other vaccines would be in September 2023. (Froilan Gallardo / MindaNews)