They are only offered AstraZeneca shots
By Antigoni Pitta
While most attention over the vaccination programme has been on the constant portal system crashes and the AstraZeneca vaccine, those not registered with the general health scheme (Gesy) say they have been left feeling like second-class citizens while trying to book vaccination appointments.
Their main complaints concern lengthy application procedures and the lack of choice over vaccines. It’s AstraZeneca or nothing.
At the beginning of the month the national vaccination plan was threatened by reports of possible links between the AstraZeneca shot and rare blood clots, which caused the vaccine’s popularity to plummet across the world, including Cyprus. After the European Medicines Agency said it had found possible links but reiterated that the benefits of the vaccines outweighed the risks, the health ministry announced it would be proceeding with all available vaccines.
To book an appointment, Gesy beneficiaries can access the vaccination portal online on the days corresponding to their age group, where they are normally given a choice between available vaccines. AstraZeneca remained the most unpopular choice in the aftermath of EMA’s announcement, with thousands of slots remaining unclaimed every time the portal opened. At the same time, excessive demand for other vaccines caused the system to crash within minutes. When the portal opened for people aged 47-48 on Thursday, for example, it was reported that only ten per cent of the appointments arranged were AstraZeneca.
The health ministry announced in early January that vaccinations would be available for those not registered to Gesy, but the process of securing an appointment is not as straightforward. Applicants must fill out a form and wait for a call to arrange their appointment over the phone, where they are only given the AstraZeneca option instead of a choice of vaccine.
Concerns were raised over the effectiveness of this process by a number of Cyprus Mail readers, who got in touch over the past months to detail their own experiences.
A reader who submitted the relevant forms in January only got vaccinated nearly three months later, in early April. When he first got in touch in March, he called the ministry’s move to offer vaccinations to non-Gesy individuals a “token gesture,” saying that not enough information, nor a comprehensive timeline, was offered to those trying to get an appointment using this method.
This opinion was shared by a second reader attempting to book a vaccine for their elderly mother, who had to wait several weeks for the application to be processed. Both remarked that the process is delaying the vaccination of vulnerable groups, leaving them exposed to the virus for longer. Another concern was that many could miss their designated day to book, while others, particularly the elderly, have already missed it.
Others were more concerned with the lack of choice, questioning why only AstraZeneca shots are available for them.
“Why is the Ministry of Health discriminating against non-Gesy residents in respect of Covid vaccinations?” a reader asked, explaining that due to health issues that make her prone to blood clots, she has been left with no choice but to remain unvaccinated after being told she cannot get an alternative.
Earlier this week, a German national residing in Cyprus called the practice “a blatant discrimination and injustice”, saying it is “creating a two-class system in order to force more AstraZeneca vaccinations onto the population”.
However, the health ministry denied there was a specific reason for this, other than the fact there is an abundance of AstraZeneca doses.
“We are using whichever vaccine happens to be widely available, and in this case it’s AstraZeneca,” spokeswoman Margarita Kyriacou told the Sunday Mail.
This does not mean the ministry is trying to get rid of these vaccines on certain groups, only that it has a lot of them, she explained.
As for applicants missing the designated booking day for their age group, Kyriacou said that this only concerns bookings made through the Gesy portal, and therefore does not apply to non-Gesy appointments.
“Nobody is in danger of losing their turn, and nobody is being left behind,” she assured, since these appointments are made over the phone after the forms and their attached documents are examined. The reason the process is more time-consuming, she added, is that these documents can vary between individual cases, she explained.
So far, 224,352 vaccination doses have been administered islandwide, with 58,794 people having received both doses of the anti-coronavirus vaccine. As the government’s best hope against the virus, the plan has accelerated significantly in the past few weeks, covering more vulnerable groups and dipping into the 40+ age group.
To further speed up the process, it was announced on Thursday that anyone over 30 can receive the AstraZeneca vaccine from their personal doctor without having to book through the portal. These vaccinations will run in parallel with those performed at vaccination centres, but those wanting any of the other shots must still follow the portal route and adhere to age group guidelines.