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The first batch of COVID vaccines touched down in South Africa in February 2021. Health workers were the first to get a jab under the Sisonke study. But even before the country had bought any jabs, our reporters were writing about the logistics and the politics of the project. If you want to know how well the vaccines work, how the different jabs compare or what it takes to create a vaccine from research, to regulation, to rollout, you’re at the right place.

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SA’s COVID vaccine drive – 5 problems and solutions from rural South Africa

  • The Eastern Cape and Limpopo are tied for first place in South Africa’s vaccination race while provinces that house the country’s big cities such as Gauteng lag behind.
  • Organisations are spending thousands to taxi people in rural areas to vaccine sites for their double dose Pfizer vaccines in the absence of Johnson & Johnson’s single dose jabs.
  • Far more people could be vaccinated daily by mobile vaccine sites if district pharmacies were open earlier during the week and if they were open on weekends, say those working on the ground in rural areas.

About a third of South Africa’s residents live in rural areas — our COVID vaccine roll-out would therefore need to cover such areas sufficiently to meet its target to immunise all eligible adults by the end of 2021.

Remote villages can be hard to reach, but some rural areas have, however, excelled.

In the Eastern Cape, the Bulungula Incubator and the provincial health department have vaccinated 95% of people over the age of 60 with their first dose of Pfizer in the hard-to-reach villages around the Xhora River Mouth on the Wild Coast, the organisation’s data shows.

This graph represents the proportion of people vaccinated in rural Eastern Cape villages near the Xhora River Mouth –  Nqileni, KwaTshezi, Folokwe and Mgonjweni.

Counterintuitively, the Eastern Cape is tied with Limpopo for first place in South Africa’s immunisation race – both have fully immunised more than 26% of their population.

Meanwhile, provinces which house the country’s biggest cities such as Gauteng, the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal lag between the 18% and 25% mark. 

So what did Limpopo and the Eastern Cape do right and how have they overcome the challenges of taking vaccines into hard-to-reach communities? We break it down.

Challenge 1: Remote areas are hard to reach with vaccines

Some areas are just “completely off the map”, says Jacqueline Pienaar, the executive director of the Centre for HIV/Aids Prevention Studies, Chaps. 

Chaps has been helping the health department to reach such communities in the national vaccine roll-out. It is often difficult for their outreach team to find such villages or homes and often they have to rely on people from that area to direct them.

In the Eastern Cape, the Bulungula Incubator works with the provincial health department to establish community outreach sites in the Mbhashe district that includes the towns Dutywa, Willowvale and Elliotdale. 

Lynne Wilkinson, acting director of the Incubator, says for a long time the nearest vaccination site for the area was Madwaleni hospital, which is about 30 kilometres away from Nqileni Village in the Xhora Mouth area. The nearest town, Elliotdale is another 30 kilometres from the hospital.

“People from Xhora Mouth villages have to cross a river and catch three different taxis to get to Madwaleni Hospital,” she says. 

“That’s a good full day’s journey [on the area’s challenging roads] and it costs a lot of money to get all the way to the hospital for a vaccination,” Wilkinson says. “So it’s unlikely that people will either have the money or have the motivation to use the small amount of money that they do have to go and get a vaccine.”

Transporting people from such communities to far-away sites is not always the best option, because it’s expensive and time-consuming. 

In June, the Bulungula Incubator arranged transport for community members over the age of 60 in Mbhashe district in the Eastern Cape to get their jab, but it came at a high cost. Wilkinson says driving around 200 people to the site and back costs around R18 000 in taxi fares, which is not something that can easily be accomplished again.

Solution 1: Go to the people, don’t let them come to you 

Partnering with nonprofits to help with roll-outs in remote areas, is a strategy provincial health departments have benefitted from. Nonprofits that work in such areas know the people, roads and challenges well. 

Chaps helps districts with rural roll-outs in five provinces including Gauteng, Western Cape, Eastern Cape, North West and the Free State. 

The organisation sets up fixed vaccination sites that run on weekdays in some districts and one-day-only mobile sites in the more hard-to-reach areas. 

But Chaps and the provincial health departments they work with always first do a scouting visit before they show up with a team to set up vaccination sites. Such trips have two goals: to prepare the communities for vaccination day and to gauge how long it takes to travel there. 

Community health workers (CHWs), for instance, go door-to-door in communities to talk to people about how the vaccines work and what side-effects they can expect. 

Another option more remote areas can adopt is called the “hub-and-spoke” model, which the Eastern Cape follows.

This is when a more established healthcare facility provides a sort of “lifeline” to nearby rural hospitals in order to make sure remote areas have continuous access to health services, according to a 2017 paper in BMC Health Services Research.

The “hub” is the district hospital and then satellite clinics function as the “spokes”, explains Russell Rensburg, director of the Rural Health Advocacy Project. 

“When the vaccine roll-out opened up, what they [the Eastern Cape] did was had community mobile workers go out to the areas with the clinic and register people as well as create demand,” he says. “Then community health workers will go out and get people to the facility to be vaccinated.”

Rensburg says this direct outreach works exceptionally well to reach remote communities, although it should also be accompanied by building infrastructure in rural healthcare facilities.

In an August presentation, the Eastern Cape health department said that by the end of that month, they were doing an average of almost 38 000 vaccinations per day up from around 26 000 daily vaccinations at the start of August.

They credited this partly to their plan of taking vaccinations to where people are. For instance, their vaccine drive targeted taxi ranks and SASSA pay points in addition to creating pop-up sites.

Most recently, the health department embarked on a campaign at taverns in Mthatha aimed at increasing vaccine uptake among men — who so far only account for 38% of those immunised in the province. Aside from taverns, the department is also targeting sporting events to try and get sport enthusiasts onboard with vaccination.

“We have included taverns in our vaccination campaign because we want to go where men socialise and spend their free time after work and on weekends,” said health MEC Nomakhosazana Meth.

The Mthatha tavern campaign aimed to dispel myths and counter concerns men may have about getting the jab — such as that it causes impotence (it doesn’t) and can kill you after two years (it can’t).

The idea is that once men come on board with the vaccine roll-out they can then go on to encourage others to do the same.

Challenge 2: People don’t go to sites they don’t know about 

Although creating more sites is a great start, it’s not enough — increasing the number of people getting vaccinated takes more than that.

First, you need to do something to get people to the new sites. To do that, they need to be aware of the sites, when they’re open and someone needs to explain to them how the vaccines work. 

Pienaar says her team has seen how only a handful of people turn up at a site which took hours to reach because there weren’t awareness and sensitisation campaigns in the community.

Solution 2: Go door-to-door and talk to people — before you start vaccinating 

“Community sensitisation is paramount,” Pienaar says. People need to be properly primed before the day of vaccination to get sufficient uptake.

“The key,” she says, “is to give people enough time to think through the information they’ve been given about the vaccines”.

About a week before a rural site opens, Chaps community health workers go door-to-door, telling people about the upcoming vaccination days. Chaps’ workers also hand out educational pamphlets, but these have been less successful in engaging communities than face-to-face conversations, Pienaar says. 

Men only account for 38% of those immunised in the Eastern Cape. (CHAPS)

In addition, teams drive around communities in branded vehicles and share educational messages about vaccines over loudspeakers. 

In the rural Eastern Cape, the Bulungula Incubator has created “storyboards” to help explain the vaccination process. Stories are told by characters that look, dress and speak like the people in the Xhora Mouth communities, where the organisation works. The Incubator’s CHWs helped curate the vaccination messages to suit those communities. 

Preparing communities for vax day is easier when CHWs’ campaigns are bolstered by other trusted community members including traditional leaders, religious leaders and ward councillors, Pienaar says.

The Bulungula Incubator works hand-in-hand with traditional leaders to explain to people how sites will work and to announce vaccination days at community meetings, Wilkinson says.

Challenge 3: Mistrust of new service providers 

If people don’t trust healthcare providers, they’re unlikely to use the services they offer. 

Pienaar says often when their mobile units arrive in communities, people will stand outside their houses and watch what the team is doing. People will sometimes ask questions such as “what vaccine is being used” and “what are the potential side-effects”, but, she says, “primarily, they are just sitting around and observing”.

“There’s a big issue of trust within the community,” Pienaar explains. “Even with sensitisation, that doesn’t give them comfort. They want to actually see people going through the vaccination programme — and they want to be introduced to the people who hand out the vaccines.”

Solution 3: Use community leaders to introduce vaccination teams 

“If communities are hesitant to get their shot, they’re not going to be convinced by people they don’t know — especially if they have not been prepped beforehand,” says Pienaar.

That’s why Chaps work with the most trusted community members — community leaders and ward councillors — to introduce vaccination teams and to also set the example of getting vaccinated.  

Preparing communities for vax day is easier when Community Healthcare Workers’ campaigns are bolstered by other trusted community members including traditional leaders, religious leaders and ward councillors. (CHAPS)

“People are more comfortable seeing people they know, like a neighbour or community leader, get the jab and this, in turn, builds their confidence in going to get vaccinated themselves,” she says. “It’s really important that community members are assured that the vaccine is coming from a legitimate source.”

In cases where people have not been alerted to the roll-out date, Chaps uses ward councillors to reassure the community that their teams are trustworthy.

“The ward councillors are so important to get people to trust us. It also helps to be professionally branded and to have uniforms,” Pienaar says.

Challenge 4: There’s a lotta logistics

There’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes to make the process of getting jabs into people’s arms as seamless as possible.

The first thing is making sure you have the right equipment, Pienaar says this ranges from securing the right vehicle that can reach the more remote communities to ensuring everyone has the correct protective gear needed.

“It’s a continuous supply chain that needs to continuously feed the operational teams,” says Pienaar. “It needs to be seamless because any delay inevitably impacts on the community’s trust of the team coming through.”

Securing the doses themselves can be challenging, as this depends on the operational hours of the district pharmacists.

District pharmacies have to prepare and supply the jabs to mobile teams who take them to community sites. If the pharmacy only opens at 9am, then it delays how early the vaccination team can get to the community as they have to wait for the vials to be prepared and then continue travelling to wherever they have been assigned for the day — and fewer vaccination hours means fewer people get vaccinated. 

Once mobile teams get to sites, the paperwork involved in getting people registered for vaccination takes up a considerable amount of time.   

Once mobile teams get to sites, the paperwork involved in getting people registered for vaccination takes up a considerable amount of time. (CHAPS)

Aside from the registration process being electronic, the government’s electronic vaccination system’s (EVDS) questions are more difficult to answer for people living in rural areas than for those based in cities. Wilkinson says it’s, for instance, very rare for people in villages to know what subdistrict they live in — and often their district does not appear on the EVDS. 

“It’s a huge amount of admin work,” the Bulungula Incubator’s Wilkinson says. “The department of health normally sends me a team of three to four people which I have to complement with a team of around 12 people to be able to actually run the vaccinations.”

Solution 4: Extend pharmacies’ opening hours and pre-register people 

When vaccinators show up in rural communities late in the day, people become disgruntled, and they lose trust in the programme, undoing the work of CHWs during community sensitisation. 

That is why Pienaar says district pharmacies need to open earlier and also need to operate over weekends (this hasn’t yet happened). “If they only open at 9am, vehicles can only hit the road by 9:30am at the earliest,” Pienaar says, “and it’s often at least an hour’s drive into communities”. 

She says weekend vaccination drives in rural areas would see a higher uptake if more prepared jabs were available — but for that, pharmacies need to be open on Saturdays and Sundays.

Aside from the registration process being electronic, the government’s electronic vaccination system’s (EVDS) questions are more difficult to answer for people living in rural areas than for those based in cities. (Sigrid Kite, Bulungula Incubator)

Wilkinson believes the paperwork involved in registering people on the EVDS and filling out consent forms could be cut by 75%. 

“We could be vaccinating way more people than we are at the moment because we’re constrained by the amount of paperwork and electronic questions that have to be completed for each person. 

Wilkinson’s solution to this is to create an EVDS registration support system. “Ideally, you want to set up a system where people can submit their names and [a community organisation or CHW] can do the pre-registration for them.”

Challenge 5: Getting people to return for their second Pfizer dose

Rural populations are largely migrant, which means someone could be there one day but not the next. This makes it hard to ensure that everyone who got a first Pfizer dose gets a second jab 42 days later.

For this reason, the national roll-out organisers planned to use Johnson & Johnson’s (J&J) jab, which only requires one dose, in rural areas.

But because J&J has, so far, supplied South Africa with far fewer doses than planned, Pienaar says rural areas have often had no choice but to use Pfizer shots. 

“When we arrive people might not be there for day 42 and then where are they going to go for their second jab?” Pienaar asks. “They will have to arrange transport to go to a local clinic and there is no guarantee that the clinic will have Pfizer to give them.”

Solution 5: Find more J&J jabs, create a roll-call system and build partnerships 

In the deep rural Eastern Cape, the Bulungula Incubator managed to make sure all but two of the 200 people over 60 years old in the Xhora Mouth villages got their second Pfizer jab.

The nonprofit kept records with contact details of everybody who was transported to vaccination sites for a first shot, so that they could keep track of the people who hadn’t returned for dose number two. 

Says Wilkinson: “We go and find them, we fetch them with a car and bring them for their second vaccination.” 

But behind this success was more than just a roll-call system. The Incubator did not have the means to raise the R18 000 it would cost to taxi those 200 elderly people to vaccine sites for round two of vaccinations.

“It was only possible because we partnered with the provincial health department,” Wilkinson says, “because they helped us with providing transport.”

Wilkinson concludes: “[Double-dose vaccines] are really not feasible [for the rural areas], it’s been a monumental effort.

“Focusing on a one-dose regimen is the way to go.”

Aisha Abdool Karim was a senior health reporter at Bhekisisa from 2020 to 2022.

Joan van Dyk was a health journalist, senior health journalist and news editor at Bhekisisa between 2017 and 2023.