Wednesday, 27 January 2021 18:23

By Lehlohonolo Lehana.

Photo Credit: GCIS.

Higher Education, Science and Innovation Minister Blade Nzimande has instructed HIGHER HEALTH to create a Post School Education and Training (PSET) strategy that is aligned with, and supports the Health Department’s phased national strategy and coordinate its subsequent roll out of COVID-19 vaccines.

"The strategy will help to ensure access to vaccination for our students and staff, of which priority for inclusion in the Phase 1 of the vaccine rollout programme are our frontline campus healthcare staff and health sciences students, especially the nursing, medicine and other disciplines," Nzimande said.

In sync with the Health Department’s national vaccine approach, Nzimande said the PSET vaccination strategy will develop a phased road map towards vaccination of all frontline and essential staff, student and staff volunteers, student support structures, as well as staff and students living with comorbidities across all campuses.

Addressing the HIGHER HEALTH COVID-19 webinar on Wednesday, Nzimande announced that the HIGHER HEALTH is working closely with other sister government departments to build a Health Department-approved training programme for the PSET sector for a science-based awareness and education initiative on the national COVID-19 vaccination drive.

The Minister also announced that thousands of peer educators and student volunteers will be trained, with support from student leadership and staff, to render knowledge, education and information to support the massive countrywide vaccination drive.

"I urge our institutions and HIGHER HEALTH to mobilise and capacitate our own healthcare workers, staff and final-year health science students to volunteer to be trained and act as extra hands supporting the Department of Health, as it is impossible for 40 million people to be vaccinated by a single department – we need to play our part as a sector.

"In tandem we will amplify dialogues to address vaccination hesitancy and tackle other myths aimed to mislead our people, like the untruth that COVID-19 is caused by new technologies such as 5G," Nzimande said.

Students called to use free helpline service:

Nzimande has reiterated his call to all students to access the HIGHER HEALTH 24 hour helpline number for mental health and Gender Based Violence (GBV), 0800 363636.

The Minister reported that the helpline, which was established in August 2020, has to date managed more than 5 000 crisis calls.

He noted that the increasing strain placed on mental health and GBV by the COVID-19 pandemic is undeniable and "therefore the helpline remains available to support and save lives".

"Mental wellbeing and ability to manage not only the usual stresses and pressures of student life, but the uncertainty and deepening economic deprivation that COVID-19 caused among most South African families, is essential to support productive student lives in our institutions," Nzimande said.

COVID-19 is here to stay:

Clinical Virologist at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), Dr Kerrigan McCarthy warned that COVID-19 is here to stay, emphasising a need to learn from history and change the way people live.

"We are in the second wave, third and fourth waves may yet occur," McCarthy said.

McCarthy also pointed out that whilst a vaccine will offer significant protection, sociologists and anthropologists have pointed out that a vaccine will not be enough.

"Anthropologists have pointed out to us that, a vaccine will not be enough because a vaccine can’t be rolled out to everyone immediately, a vaccine can’t be given to everyone like children, and a vaccine doesn’t address the social inequalities that entrench social ills and make the impact of the disease effects greater.

"In order to control the virus, we need to get vaccinated [when possible], isolate/quarantine as a service to others when appropriate, care for the infected and bereaved, and address social injustices in your place of work and community, "McCarthy said.

Vaccine implementation to SA:

Meanwhile, Dr Lesley Bam from the Health Department has emphasised that the vaccines will not be given to people, unless the department is very sure that they are safe and effective, and that still needs to be monitored on a daily basis.

"In order to do this, we need to have good data so that we can monitor what’s happening in terms of vaccines, how are they moving into the country, are they reaching the right parts of the country, are they getting into people’s arms, are people coming with the vaccine and are we getting sufficient coverage, and we need to, on an ongoing basis monitor issues related to possible adverse events following immunisation.

"We know it’s uncommon but we need to make sure that if any occurred, we would identify them. We need to monitor the vaccine that is working on an ongoing basis. There are quite lot of regulatory considerations that we have to take into account, have these vaccines approved and of course, this needs to be underpinned by budget and finance," Bam said.

Bam said that the roll out of the first phase of the vaccines will begin in February with 1.5 million doses, which is enough to vaccinate 750 000 people, while more vaccines are expected in the second and third phases.

She explained that Phase 1 will target health workers, including support staff working in health facilities, where an estimated one million people are expected to vaccinate. Phase 2 will include essential workers and people of risk with severe disease, including over 60 year olds and people with comorbidities, while the entire population will be able to receive the vaccines in Phase 3.