WASHINGTON – With the increase in Covid cases in Haiti, the World Health Organization has urged vaccination of healthcare professionals, but for Dr Eugene Maklin, who has built a hospital from scratch in Cape Town- Haitian, the only option is to find a way to get to the United States where vaccines are plentiful.
“Covid-19 is very scary and everyone is panicking,” Maklin told NBC News from his New Hope hospital in the northern city of Haiti. “Every day we see 15 to 20 cases.”
More than a year after the start of the pandemic, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere has yet to start immunizing its health workers, let alone its population – and up to four-fifths of hospital workers could reject vaccines even if they were available.
The Biden administration has announced that the United States will purchase 500 million doses of Pfizer vaccine for developing countries, including Haiti, but it is not known when those donations will arrive. Eighty million doses from US stocks are expected to be shipped soon to Brazil, but so far none to Haiti.
Meanwhile, the promised vaccines have yet to arrive, while thousands more doses just minutes by plane from the United States expire unused due to lack of demand.
About 130,000 doses of the Astra Zeneca vaccine were due to arrive in Haiti on June 14, but due to production delays in India, they have been delayed indefinitely, according to the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO).
“That’s the problem, we don’t know when they’ll be available,” Maklin said.
PAHO told NBC News earlier this week that production issues have slowed the rollout of the vaccine.
The White House, the United States Embassy in Haiti, the Haitian Embassy in the United States and the Haitian Ministry of Health did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The true level of infection in Haiti is unknown, but its population of 11 million is densely packed, often in unsanitary conditions. It is the only country in the Americas that is a member of COVAX, the global vaccine consortium led by the World Health Organization, that has yet to begin immunization.
And Maklin said that although he has encouraged acceptance of the vaccine, fellow Haitians are reluctant to take the Astra Zeneca vaccine because it was initially rejected by the Haitian government due to concerns about blood clots. Maklin says there is more confidence in the Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson vaccines.
Five hours away in Port-au-Prince, Father Richard Frechette faces two intertwined crises at St. Luke’s Hospital, which he founded: escalating gang violence and increasing cases of Covid. He has 115 Covid beds but says he can only use 90 due to lack of oxygen for patients. To fill the oxygen tanks, his staff must go through gang wars to the factory where they can be refilled.
“It makes our hair stand on end, but it will be even more so if we fail this routine and see a lot of suffocation in our center,” he wrote in an email. “Some days with the gang warfare, the factory workers can’t arrive, so there is no production. There is total panic.”
Frechette said he phoned a gang leader this week to try to convince him to allow safe passage for his medical staff as the gangs may need life-saving care.
Just a two-hour flight from Miami, cases continue to drop. Government-run mass vaccination sites have been closed due to lack of demand, and 5.7 million doses of vaccine intended for Florida residents have been turned over to federal government procurement as they would be otherwise wasted.
On June 11, more than 90,000 doses of the Covid vaccine from suppliers in Florida expired, according to state health officials. At CVS pharmacies in Miami, hundreds of vaccination appointments remain vacant this week.
Father Frechette says a handful of his employees with visas traveled to the United States to be vaccinated and about 30 others obtained special permission to be vaccinated from the nearby US embassy, but the efforts to obtain donated expiring vaccines from the United States have failed.
Barbara Campbell of the Dalton Foundation, based in Cleveland, Ohio, conducted informal surveys of Haitian healthcare workers and organized bi-weekly calls with medical teams in the field. She estimates that 80 percent of the medical staff in Haiti are resistant to vaccines in part because of widespread misinformation.
She said her organization had been contacted by some U.S. state health officials offering their expiring Johnson & Johnson vaccines, but officials ultimately concluded that they could not send them independently without the approval of the US government that still hasn’t come.
Father Frechette said he had taken the tour of his Covid department this week and was comforted to see some beds emptied. He said only 5 percent of the patients had been “discharged to heaven”. He was sure, however, that the beds would fill up again very soon.
Among the cases of Covid in his parish, there are elderly nuns who are dedicated to taking care of the poor of Haiti. Father Rick said one of them, Sister Rose, recently saw the level of oxygen saturation in her blood drop from 94 to 80 percent.
“She was doing great, now she is in danger,” he wrote. He added that she would have benefited from all the things he didn’t, like the remdesivir – and the vaccine.
“She would have been an excellent candidate for vaccination.”