Medical experts talk CHROs through the fact, fiction and reality of Covid-19 vaccination

Despite the current unrest, experts insist now is not the time to press the pause button.

With South Africa in the grips of a Covid-19 third wave and recent unrest in KwaZulu-Natal having an adverse effect the country’s vaccine rollout programme, the CFO and CHRO Community Conversation this week brought together leading finance and HR professionals to share insights and learnings from the ongoing pandemic.

Dr Chris van Straten, regional medical director of Clinical Governance for Africa at International SOS, took attendees through some of the latest data around infections, public and private healthcare, deaths and admissions.

He emphasised the importance of getting data from the right sources and pointed out that the efficacy and safety profile of Covid-19 vaccines were excellent.

“The vaccine was not rushed, and although side effects are real, they are mostly minor. Severe side effects are extremely rare, with for example, one in four million people experiencing embolisms. To compare this statistic, there is a higher probability of being struck by lightning,” he explained.
Chris added that he had received the J&J vaccine quite early on and believes that people in leadership positions have a responsibility to share such information.

“I have also tried to understand why some people are reluctant to get vaccinated. Some of the reasons are worth understanding, for example if a family member has previously had a severe allergic reaction, then that experience scares people as they believe the vaccine may result in an anaphylactic reaction,” he said.

Perfect storm
Dr Stavros Nicolaou, group senior executive or Strategic Trade at Aspen Pharma Group, pointed out that care is taken on the day of vaccination to safeguard against severe adverse reactions.

“You will have to wait 15 minutes before leaving. This is because if an anaphylactic reaction were to occur, it would happen within those 15 minutes,” he said.

From a global perspective, over 3.5 billion doses have already been administered over the past eight months and the safety and efficacy parameters are looking extremely good.

Dr Stavros joined the Community Conversation directly after a meeting with the government regarding the vaccine rollout and the effect of the unrest in KwaZulu-Natal on vaccination sites and supply.

“The best economic policy for any country in 2021 is to vaccinate. There are measures that can be taken regarding the situation in KwaZulu-Natal and we are in the perfect storm at the moment. Amidst the concerns around the economy and stability, the vaccine rollout presents a glimmer of hope,” he said.

The rollout programme started in South Africa on 17 May 2021 and there has been a significant acceleration in vaccinations per day since the end of June. Initially, according to Dr Stavros, 32,000 vaccine doses were administered a week, and the country was poised to touch 230,000 to 240,000 a day by mid-July.

“A significant amount of effort, resources and infrastructure went into the planning. Unfortunately, the tragic events that have unfolded have dropped the numbers, so the programme is all but suspended in KwaZulu-Natal and parts of Gauteng,” he added.
However, Dr Stavros is adamant that this does not mean pressing the pause button on the vaccine rollout.

“There is an urgent need to get more boots on the ground. The looting and rioting also poses other public health challenges, in terms of availability of chronic medication and pushing up caseloads in already over-stretched public and private healthcare. The message is that life and property are paramount and it is also important to get vaccinated,” he said.

Mental wellbeing
Attendees from both the CHRO and CFO communities also had the opportunity to interact with others in their community during the breakaway sessions, and share some of their vaccination policy plans and the challenges of having a workforce comprising vaccinated and not-vaccinated employees.

On a practical level, for example, some airlines now require passengers to provide proof of vaccination in order to travel, and employees who choose not to be vaccinated will therefore not meet this requirement.

This led attendees to conclude that two protocols may be required within a company, one for vaccinated employees and the other for unvaccinated employees – with health, safety and wellbeing being kept top of mind at all times.

From a mental wellbeing perspective, Dr Chris noted that people were already dealing with mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression and burnout, before Covid-19.

“Chronic stress and overwork have exacerbated the situation. We can see that with the data coming through, showing a higher requirement for mental health support, psychology and GP support. We are seeing more cases of mental health concerns being brought to the fore,” he said.

He added, “Rioting and looting inflames this. We are resilient and it is amazing what we have endured. It is important to be realistic and keep your eye on the ball and where we want to be. Also, access the resources that are available, like psychologists online and even each other.”

He also had one bit of parting advice for human resources leaders: “There is a rise in suicides globally and people are hurting. We have to engage with empathy. It’s not always easy to know where other people are. People are dealing with bereavement, anxiety, concerns about job and food security. So, it is important to reach out with empathy, use technology and foster inclusion.”