COVID infections imperil Indonesia’s vaccinated well being employees, and hospitals

JAKARTA, July 7 (Reuters) – Indonesian pulmonologist Erlina Burhan is upset after missing 200 coronavirus-infected employees after another long shift in a crowded hospital, despite being vaccinated only months ago.

“It’s crazy, really crazy,” she tells Reuters. “More patients, but fewer staff. That’s ridiculous.”

About 95% of health workers have been fully vaccinated, mostly with China’s Sinovac, the Indonesian Hospital Association (IHA) said.

However, according to the independent data group Lapor COVID-19, 131 healthcare workers, most of whom were vaccinated with the Sinovac shot, have died since June, including 50 in July.

A spokesman for the Indonesian Ministry of Health did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Amid the surge in infections, some medical professionals are now questioning the vaccine’s effectiveness, despite the Indonesian government saying the problem lies with the delta coronavirus variant, not the vaccine.

Most infected health workers show only mild symptoms, but a Reuters survey of doctors, hospital directors and health industry chiefs shows that thousands have been forced to isolate on the island of Java, home to around 150 million people and the epicenter of the worsening Outbreak of Indonesia.

IHA general secretary Lia Partakusuma said she had examined large government hospitals in major Java cities.

“They say 10% of their employees are positive for COVID,” she said.

These workers should be isolated for two weeks, she added, although other health workers said many were only confiscated for five days because they were so badly needed at work.

The surge in health worker deaths and infections couldn’t come at a worse time, doctors and hospital directors say.

A quadrupling of the official coronavirus case numbers last month to more than 31,000 per day means that the number of hospital stays has increased “three to five times” according to the IHA.

Epidemiologists say low test rates mean official COVID-19 data doesn’t really reflect the scale of the outbreak.

MANPOWER IS THE PROBLEM

Patients connected to IV fluids in parking lots, others lying comatose in makeshift beds in corridors, the hectic search for oxygen amid bottlenecks – all of this is commonplace in hospitals in Java today, say doctors and hospital directors.

Many hospitals are either almost full or over-capacity, say hospital directors and the IHA.

Public health experts fear the situation will worsen and warn that Indonesia could be “the next India,” where COVID cases skyrocketed and the health system was flooded in April and May.

However, Indonesia is less ready than India to deal with such a crisis. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development says Indonesia has 0.4 doctors per 1,000 people, the fifth lowest in Asia Pacific and less than half that of India.

Faced with staff shortages, hospitals recruit “volunteers” – pharmacists, X-ray technicians and medical students pay modest amounts.

A hospital chain executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said caring for COVID-19 patients often required skills that could not be provided by students or other volunteers.

“That’s not really a solution,” said the executive.

On the islands of Java and Bali, the government has imposed tough social restrictions, while the Minister of Health has promised almost 8,000 more hospital beds.

But the doctors ask what more beds will bring without the staff.

“The problem is the workforce. Even if we can make room, who can take care of it?” said neurologist Eka Julianta Wahjoepramono.

“Nobody. That’s the problem.”

“NO SIGNIFICANT ANTIBODIES”

Indonesia has relied heavily on China’s Sinovac vaccine because it was the only pharmaceutical company to sell large quantities of cans quickly.

Most health workers were vaccinated in February and March, making them a major global test case for the vaccine’s effectiveness.

First, Sinovac’s vaccination program significantly reduced deaths from COVID-19. 158 doctors died from the respiratory disease in January, but the number had dropped to 13 by May.

According to the Indonesian Medical Association, at least 30 doctors have died since June.

Eka, who was fully vaccinated with Sinovac, ended up in hospital with a severe case of COVID-19 last month.

“A lot of my colleagues didn’t have significant increases in antibodies after Sinovac,” he said, which means they didn’t have high levels of protection against infection.

Sinovac didn’t respond to requests for comment, but last month Sinovac spokesman Liu Peicheng told Reuters that preliminary results showed that the vaccine reduced the neutralizing effect three times over the Delta variant.

He said a booster vaccination could quickly produce a stronger, more lasting antibody response. He did not provide any detailed information.

Health Minister Budi Gunadi Sadikin has defended the Sinovac vaccine. “The problem we are facing is not related to the different efficacy of the vaccines, but mainly the Delta variant.”

The Medical Association has asked the government to give health workers a third dose of the vaccine, and quickly.

Some doctors fly to the US to get other vaccines. For most, however, such a trip would be too expensive, said Dr. Berlian Idriansyah Idris.

“We can’t isolate ourselves and work from home, for God’s sake. Not now,” he said.

“A third shot will give us the protection we need.”

Reporting by Tom Allard in Jakarta and Kate Lamb in Sydney. Additional reporting from Agustinus Beo Da Costa and Stanley Widianto in Jakarta. Editing by Robert Birsel

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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