Lebanon races to vaccinate population as COVID-19 deaths rise

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BEIRUT, Lebanon, Jan. 29 (UPI) — Lebanon is racing against time to vaccinate a large number of its population, including Palestinian refugees, displaced Syrians and migrant workers, in order to contain an increase in the COVID-19 mortality rate.

Health authorities are aiming at inoculating 80 percent of its residents in 2021 under a plan released Wednesday.

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The targeted population was encouraged to start registration online, with the rollout following priorities laid out by the World Health Organization. Healthcare workers, the elderly and people with chronic diseases will be the first to be vaccinated.

A $34 million reallocated loan from the World Bank allowed Lebanon to order vaccines for over 2 million people, according to a World Bank release last week.

Dr. Assem Araji, a cardiologist and a lawmaker who heads the parliamentary health committee, said Lebanon has reserved some 6 million vaccine doses, with a first batch of 249,000 Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines expected to be delivered between the second week of February and the end of March. Lebanon is also expected to receive AstraZeneca vaccine doses in March.

Araji told UPI Lebanon would need 10 million vaccines to cover residents above age 16 from among an estimated population of 4.5 million to 5 million with two doses. The country has yet to secure the remaining 4 million doses needed, some expected to be covered through donations.

Lebanon registered a record 68 coronavirus deaths on Thursday, with 3,497 new cases reported in 24 hours, raising the total number to 293,157 cases and 2,621 deaths since the outbreak of the virus on Feb. 21.

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This month, coronavirus cases at one point reached a record 5,500 cases a day, mainly caused by relaxed rules and laxity in adhering to COVID-19 preventive measures during Christmas and New Year holidays.

“We should vaccinate all residents, not only our citizens, in order to achieve herd immunity, especially that we have a large number of Palestinians, Syrians and from other nationalities,” Araji said.

The vaccines will be distributed to the public for free and without discrimination, according to medical criteria. Although the process is optional, Araji urged all eligible residents to get vaccinated.

Besides the World Bank, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency and other international agencies were involved to secure a proper implementation of the vaccination program.

“The inclusive approach taken by the national plan is the right one and the only one that can guarantee the safety of Lebanese, refugees and migrants in Lebanon…because no one is safe until everyone is safe,” Claudio Cordone, UNRWA director in Lebanon, told UPI.

A total of 4,681 Palestinian refugees have been infected by the virus and 163 have died.

Cordone said the agency counted 18,668 Palestinian refugees registered with UNRWA above age 75 who are eligible for the first phase of the vaccination program. He put the total number of Palestinian health workers at 1,238, of whom 374 are UNRWA staff. However, he said it is still unclear whether all frontline workers or a percentage of them are going to be vaccinated first.

“We are waiting for the vaccines to arrive…the quantities are limited and we will see how this is going to be implemented and if there are enough vaccine doses,” Cordone said, emphasizing the need that all refugees register through the online platform as “we don’t know how many of them are actually in the country.”

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He said that the agency wants to make sure “no one is left out as the people do have an opportunity…but it is a personal choice whether to take the vaccine or not.”

As for the estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees, of whom 856,531 are registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, some 2,868 have been infected by the virus and 113 have died. UNHCR said it has been coordinating closely with the Lebanese ministry of health and is ready to provide operational support.

World Bank monitoring of the vaccination program’s implementation has helped ease fears of favoritism or smuggling.

“We want to make sure through our engagement that the whole planning is fully aligned with the WHO guidance as per international best practice,” World Bank regional director Saroj Kumar Jha said during a Zoom briefing last week.

Jha emphasized that the World Bank will be supervising the vaccine rollout in the country and “also hire an independent vaccine monitor” to confirm that the agency financing of the vaccination program is being carried on exactly as planned.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent anti-coronavirus restrictive measures, including three lockdowns since March, have further aggravated Lebanon’s ailing economy, pushing more people into poverty, increasing the number of unemployed and forcing the closure of thousands of businesses.

“The vaccination will give confidence to people to open the economy and to help economic recovery,” Jha said.

However, if all vaccines are delivered on time, the vaccination process will take a year or so to achieve the required herd immunity.

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“The people should first keep on respecting the restrictive measures…otherwise the COVID-19 cases and mortality rate will continue to rise for a long time,” Araji said, noting that Lebanon would not be able to impose more lockdowns.