Guwahati: On December 11, Assam had 1,110 active COVID cases, which is not a high number by any stretch of the imagination. The state’s death toll remains a little over 6,000, which is not even close to states like Maharashtra, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and even West Bengal. However, the state government is aware that vaccination numbers are still not as good as they should be, especially in light of a potential third wave.

State health teams have, over the past few weeks, intensified their COVID-19 vaccination drives, particularly in some pockets of rural districts, having a sizeable “vaccine-resistant” population.

In terms of doses, the state health department has, till December 7, 2021, administered as many as 3.43 crore (3, 43, 52292) doses, of which (2.15 crore) 2, 15, 14,525 are first doses while (1.28 crore) 1, 28, 37,767 are second doses

ASHA workers and medical staff have, over the past eight to nine months, carried out the process in the health centres. However, door-to-door drives have been intensified over the past few weeks. Teams comprising health officers, teachers, block-level officers, and supervisors, verification officers, Anganwadi workers and vaccination sector officers are now involved in the process of last-mile vaccination.

These exercises have certainly thrown a new challenge at the administration. State nodal officer of Covid-19 vaccination, Munindra Ngatey informed EastMojo, “The central government had earlier set a target of covering 2.36 crore people. However, when the figures from the districts came out lower, we had to arrive at the total eligible count from the voter list, which stood at 2.33 crore. Then again, we had to subtract those who have died and ultimately arrived at a target population of 2.28 crore,” Ngatey said.

The health department, however, has to cover about five lakh people. Out of the 13 lakh left, about eight lakh people work outside the state.

“So, assuming that they have returned to their workplaces with the pandemic situation improving considerably, we now have a target population of only 5 lakh. Of these, about 1.20 lakh are lactating and pregnant mothers, COVID-positive patients who are recovering and a section of vaccine-resistant people, mainly in the hill districts,” he said.

The health officer further pointed out that the chief minister had set a deadline for completing the vaccination exercise by January 20, 2022.

The National Health Mission, Assam, had earlier directed the principal secretaries of the Bodoland Territorial Council, Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council and Dima Hasao Autonomous Council, along with the deputy commissioners of Kokrajhar, Chirang, Baksa, Udalguri, Sonitpur, Karbi Anglong, West Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao districts to involve all local religious leaders to overcome vaccine hesitancy.

The state health minister, chief secretary, and senior health department officials met with Christian community leaders from Kamrup (Metro), Karbi Anglong, West Karbi Anglong, Kokrajhar, Goalpara, Sonitpur and Udalguri districts to address the issue of vaccination hesitancy in predominantly tribal-inhabited pockets.

Church leaders were requested to appeal to their community people for vaccination, especially during the Sunday mass. The district officials also visited places of the religious congregation before/after prayer hours to interact with the participants and motivate them to take the vaccination.

While vaccine hesitancy pockets were scattered and far-flung, remoteness, too, posed a great challenge for last-mile vaccination.

“Over the past few weeks, church leaders have been engaged to make a section of the reluctant population in the hill districts understand the benefits of vaccination and bust myths…that the vaccine might adversely affect the health of the people,” said Ngatey.

Among the state’s hill districts, about 80,000 people in Karbi Anglong ARE yet to be vaccinated. “The other hill districts have a relatively lower population uncovered by vaccination campaigns,” the officer said.

He further revealed that for districts such as Karbi Anglong, a plan was being put in place, per the instructions of the chief minister.

“Under the plan, extra manpower, vehicles and health staff would be engaged to aggressively push the vaccination in these pockets where people show resistance. However, we are on track to meet the mid-January deadline of vaccinating the remaining 5 lakh people,” Ngatey said.

With the third wave of COVID-19 looming, the Assam government has also embarked on a two-day intensive second dose vaccination drive from Friday, during which, it will also create awareness to woo people to the nearest COVID vaccination centres.

Earlier, on November 29, 2021, the health department launched a week-long vaccination drive across 33 state districts to reach out to the unreached population and subsequently motivate the left-out people to get fully vaccinated.

Official sources informed that while the intensive vaccination campaign started in Assam on November 8, a special house-to-house drive, under the “Har Ghar Dastak” campaign concluded on December 5, 2021, covering each polling booth area to achieve 100 per cent COVID vaccination in the state.

The central government had recently launched the month-long “Har Ghar Dastak” campaign for ensuring 100 per cent COVID vaccination in the country.

Narrating his experience during the polling station-wise drive regarding coping with vaccine-hesitant people in the Rani block of Kamrup (Rural) district, Diganta Nath, a block-level supervisor, told East Mojo that he had engaged with people in areas falling under 14 polling stations and that the first-dose coverage has been almost cent per cent.

“Yes, we had to exercise a lot of patience, caution and empathy to convince them that the vaccines do not have any adverse effects. So we had to create an ambience which allowed them to listen to our pleas and finally agree, albeit reluctantly,” Nath said.

He said that among the rural people who were the most hesitant are medically-unfit people, people who had recently been operated upon, those with prolonged diseases, some who refused to understand at all, and habitual drinkers, who remain intoxicated throughout the day.

The block-level official further said they conducted several awareness camps during the drive. “There are people who remain at work outside the home and a section who give us the slip once they get information about such campaigns in the area,” he added.

Rani block is an area close to the Assam-Meghalaya border comprising primarily a mix of Assamese, Rabha and Kachari populations.

“We also had to encounter sections of people living in the border areas that refused to open up regarding availing the vaccination facilities from either Assam or Meghalaya,” Nath said.

Also read: New Year gift for Assam govt employees: 4-day leave to meet parents

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