Hong Kong officials have defended a plan to begin automatically scheduling residents of care homes for Covid-19 jabs, rejecting criticism that the government is unfairly piling pressure on the elderly to get vaccinated.
Secretary for the Civil Service Patrick Nip Tak-kuen, who is in charge of Hong Kong’s inoculation drive, on Friday stressed that the city’s elderly population needed the jabs to protect themselves, pointing to a very low inoculation rate of under 10 per cent at care facilities.
“The elderly have to get vaccinated because they have a high chance of infection and dying from severe illness,” he told reporters after attending a reception to celebrate National Day.
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“We hope this will simplify the procedure and let more elderly get vaccinated … We are absolutely not pressuring the elderly, as it is backed by medical evidence that they need to get inoculated.”
Nip’s defence of the new plan came as Hong Kong confirmed four new coronavirus infections on Friday – all imported – taking the city’s overall tally to 12,221 including 213 deaths.
Two days earlier, the government began automatically scheduling jabs at 10 designated facilities for those medically qualified, placing the onus on the residents or their families to opt out.
Nip said while some residents had been vaccinated through the government’s outreach service, the inoculation rate remained far too low. More than 90 per cent of staff members at the homes have been vaccinated.
“Experts have made it clear that the elderly are safe to be vaccinated against Covid-19 if they have received an influenza jab before. Those who have chronic disease are also suitable for the vaccine unless they suffer from acute illness,” Nip said.
Doctors will assess residents for their suitability for the Sinovac jab at the 10 care homes chosen for the pilot programme. Their families will then be notified of the plan to administer the shot, which will go ahead if no objections have been raised within two weeks.
Executive Council member Dr Lam Ching-choi, chairman of the city’s Elderly Commission, told the Post the Chinese-made Sinovac vaccine was chosen for the programme as it was more popular among older residents and less likely to trigger side effects such as headaches or fever than the BioNTech version, which offers stronger protection.
Another reason was logistical, he added, as Sinovac jabs did not require ultra-cold storage or a dilution process, meaning they could be more easily administered at care homes.
Lam also said that the 10 institutions picked for the pilot scheme included a mix of government and private-run homes, so officials could better test the smoothness of the roll-out.
Speaking on a radio programme earlier in the day, Lam said that in cases involving elderly residents who did not have relatives to sign the reply slip, doctors could be trusted to make a well-informed assessment of their medical eligibility.
“These conditions do not only exist among the elderly, but also among children and the mentally disabled. They cannot clearly express their will. In such cases, doctors will bear the responsibility for assessment based on [the patient’s] interest,” he said. “This has always been the practice in the medical sector.”
Crystal Yuen Shuk-yan, a social worker from the Society for Community Organisation, said allaying elderly Hongkongers’ concerns on vaccination was of the utmost importance.
“The elderly in care homes do not have much bargaining power. I am worried the care homes will force the elderly or their families if they need to deliver results [on jabs],” she told the same radio show.
“It would be better if there were seminars and good communication between care homes and the elderly.”
Vaccination rates among the elderly are the lowest in the city. Just 40.3 per cent of people in their 70s have received at least one vaccine dose, a number that plummets to 14.6 per cent for those aged 80 or above.
Overall, about 60 per cent of eligible Hong Kong residents have received at least one jab.
Separately, the government on Friday announced further steps to phase out the use of deep-throat saliva tests for coronavirus screening, including shutting down seven collection points, following a meeting of mainland and Hong Kong experts in Shenzhen exchanging views on the subject.
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