From vaccinating teachers in Qatar to the arrival of the first Moderna vaccines, here is what the country’s most senior COVID-19 health official told Doha News.
Qatar hit a new milestone in its vaccination campaign on Thursday, with health officials confirming more than 100,000 vaccines have been administered, as well as the inauguration of more vaccine centres.
Doha News spoke to Dr. Abdullatif Al Khal, Chair of the National Health Strategic Group on COVID-19 and Head of Infectious Diseases at Hamad Medical Corporation [HMC] in an interview at the latest COVID-19 vaccination centre in the capital on Thursday.
The interview was held at the Qatar National Convention Centre where health authorities announced a new phase in the country’s inoculation campaign that targets teachers and staff at public and private schools across the nation.
“Teachers are essential workers, it’s important that they get vaccinated for the continuity of the education process and for schools to remain open. So that’s why they were given the priority and there’s a close collaboration between the ministry of health and the ministry of education,” Dr. Al Khal told Doha News at the inauguration.
“Most or all teachers” will be vaccinated in the next four weeks, with 8,000 shots expected to be given out per day when the centre is fully operational by the middle of next week, the health official revealed.
On Thursday, the centre opened with a 50% capacity with hoped to administer some 4,000 shots given, Al-Khal stated.
“Now, because we have enough vaccines to even double the capacity of the daily number of people vaccinated, the MoPH opened this vaccination centre. The idea of this centre is to significantly increase the daily capacity of people who can be vaccinated against COVID,’ Al-Khal added.
The latest vaccine centre also comes as part of the country’s National Strategic vaccination plan to battle the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Supported by the Ministry of Public Health [MoPH], the plan was launched on December 23rd when the the first batch of Pfizer vaccines landed in Qatar. The inoculation drive seeks to vaccinate residents and citizens in four phases by the end of this year.
“In those four phases, there’s progressive inclusion of different categories of the population,” he said. “No country has enough vaccines for their whole population, he added, to explain why the campaign was split up into phases.
The strategic plan also calls for vaccinating priority groups, mainly those at the greatest risk upon infection, including the elderly, people with chronic diseases and essential workers.
“The country procured enough vaccines to cover the entire population. Now that the vaccine deliveries are increasing, the ministry of health needs to increase its ability to administer the vaccine. When we started, we started in seven health centres and then the ministry of health expanded to the 27 health centres,” said Al-Khal.
Who got the vaccines?
While the new centre will begin with vaccinating teachers, it will soon expand to provide the shots to more members of the community, among whom school administrative staff and essential workers.
“This centre is not only for teachers, but we are starting with teachers because of the nature of their role, but other members of the community and other essential workers will get their vaccines here in the centre,” said Dr. Al-Khal.
Teachers eligible to receive the vaccination will be contacted by text message, the official said, adding that the centre is only accessible by appointments.
“[The list] starts with teachers of nursing schools, primary schools, teachers of schools for children or students with special needs, and then it will go up,” stated Dr. Al-Khal.
He added that both ministries of health and education are targeting teachers in public schools and private schools, saying that “they will be treated equally and will be given equal priority”.
Moderna vs. Pfizer debate
Teachers at the QNCC vaccine centre will receive the Pfizer shots, which Qatar first acquired in December. Dr. Al Khal also revealed an initial, small-quantity shipment of the Moderna vaccine has already been delivered to Qatar for testing, though they have yet to be rolled out to the public.
More Moderna vaccine deliveries are expected in upcoming weeks.
“The Moderna vaccine and the Pfizer vaccine are more or less the same in terms of efficacy and safety and people given any of those vaccines should take them and they should not try to take one over the other,” he said.
Are schools behind the surge in cases?
Qatar has seen a surge in daily recorded cases since the start of the year, with fingers being pointed towards schools for the increase in numbers. This has prompted calls for schools to be shut and classes transferred to virtual learning, with parents sharing concerns over potential risks to their children.
However, Dr. Al-Khal has dismissed those claims, saying the cases are not transferred through schools but rather through community events that students then carry to their educational institutions.
“If you look at the data that is collected by the ministry of health and the epidemiology of the virus in the country and where the most positive cases are, it doesn’t support it. The students are members of the community and what happens in schools is a reflection of what’s happening in the community,” he said.
The Qatari health official added that if the pandemic is controlled within the community, it will reflect positively on schools.
“It’s not to say that you cannot catch the infection and school and bring it home, it does happen, but it may not be contributing much to the spread of the virus in the community,” he explained.
When asked whether students will be next in line to get vaccinated, the official said they are including in the strategic plan, though this depends on the ages and health conditions.
Are children immune?
Responding to questions about parents slacking on precautionary measures with their children, Dr. Al-Khal stated that while young age groups are more resistant to severe infection, they must adhere to mask policies.
“I advise all families to do their best to have their kids wear masks, even small kids at school, even those in primary schools because that’s safer for both the families and the children,” he said.
He also advised that kids maintain their masks even outside of schools.
During our interview, Dr. Al-Khal briefly mentioned an upcoming expansion plan, but did not disclose any details about it
“We have some future expansion plans that we will announce when the time is right, about where people can get their second shots…but I do not want to spoil the excitement that comes with the news,” he told Doha News.
As the inoculation campaign gears up a notch, Dr. Al Khal strongly urged community members to continue to adhere to precautionary measures.
“It’s very important for the community members to adhere to all the preventive precautions even after taking the vaccine, because we are not 100% sure yet that the vaccine will prevent from getting an infection without symptoms and transmitting them to others…at least the community is immunised.”
Just hours after the interview, Qatari authorities announced a major new change to its mandatory quarantine travel policies, saying residents that have recieved both doses of the COVID-19 vaccines will be exempt from quarantining upon arrival from abroad.
At least two weeks must pass after the second dose is administered, the MoPH said, noting a negative PCR test is required upon arrival in Qatar.
“The quarantine exemption is valid for a period of three months, starting 14 days after the second dose, and this may be extended in the future with the availability of more clinical evidence,” a ministry statement said.
Those vaccinated in other countries must still quarantine.
On Thursday, Doha reported 462 COVID-19 cases, bumping the total number of current active cases to 9,569.
Despite the concerning increase in coronavirus cases, Qatar has had a COVID-19 fatality rate of 0.14%, one of the lowest in the world.