More serious cases of the disease are piling pressure on hard-pressed staff and straining limited resources, says Natnael Bekuretsion, medical director of an Addis Ababa hospital
* Ethiopia secures 2.2 million vaccine doses through COVAX
* Fearing shortage, hospital tries to stock oxygen cylinders
* Health workers, many of them women, first in line for jab
By Emeline Wuilbercq
ADDIS ABABA, March 18 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Ethiopia is rolling out its first COVID-19 vaccines among frontline health workers, but the vast country of 110 million people still faces an uphill struggle to beat the pandemic, according to a senior doctor in Addis Ababa.
The mass vaccination drive began on Saturday, exactly a year after a Japanese man in the capital became the Horn of Africa nation's first confirmed coronavirus case.
Natnael Bekuretsion, the 28-year-old medical director of Eka Kotebe General Hospital, was not among the first group of healthcare employees to receive the AstraZeneca vaccine, but he said the arrival of the doses was "light at the end of the tunnel".
Health professionals, including thousands of mostly female community health workers, will be prioritised, followed by the over-65s and people with chronic diseases.
Ethiopia, which has a population of about 110 million, has received about 2.2 million AstraZeneca doses through COVAX - a World Health Organization vaccine-sharing facility to aid developing nations.
As the pandemic bites in Ethiopia, with a recent surge in daily deaths, Natnael talked to the Thomson Reuters Foundation about the need to remain vigilant and the sacrifices made by healthcare workers.
What do things look like on the ground right now?
The number of patients with severe cases is increasing. Currently, almost all patients that we're admitting are severe, because we don't have room for mild patients.
We're advising the latter to stay at home and quarantine themselves and take precautions not to infect others, not to go out of their homes.
We see the trend, we see our admissions. Whenever there are gatherings, the number of patients is increasing after two or three weeks.
The infection rate is now increasing tremendously. So we have to ban these gatherings, we have to ban these weddings.
And the state of emergency that was declared a year ago (and lasted until September) should be applied again now because the trend that we're seeing now is very frustrating.
How have things changed in the last couple of months?
In 2020, 70% to 80% of our patients were mild patients. So, we weren't facing an oxygen shortage back then, but currently, these past two months, the nation has been facing these challenges.
We've tried to accumulate oxygen cylinders in our hospital, but there is a shortage of oxygen gas.
No patients have died here because of a shortage of oxygen, or because of a shortage of machines.
Different hospitals have contacted us and asked if we had available beds in the ICU. These patients are on a waiting list. I don't know if they survived or not.
Patients are now walking into the hospital by themselves and telling us they have COVID-19 and think they need oxygen. In previous months, they were going to nearby clinics, and then they were transferred here.
But now we can see that the nearby clinics are also getting full, and they're not able to admit them. So these patients are coming to our doors.
It's frustrating because if it continues like this, the number of patients who need oxygen and the number of patients who need machines will increase and we won't have the capacity to admit them. That's the fear.
About 50 employees were vaccinated at Eka Kotebe General Hospital last weekend. What did it mean for you and your staff?
It was a coincidence that it happened on the same date that the first patient was admitted here.
Everyone was exhilarated not only because the vaccine had arrived, but also by the coincidence and by how the past year had passed and that some good news had arrived.
It boosts our confidence to go and treat more patients, to work even more.
For the past year, we didn't know if we could get medication or if we could get the vaccine. We knew that some day it would arrive, but we didn't know when.
The day has now come and we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. It encourages us to do more.
Is there COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy among Ethiopians?
Even here at the hospital, nobody wanted to be the first.
After two, three, or four people were vaccinated, everyone was expecting immediate reactions. But after a minute or so, everyone wanted to receive the jab.
About 450 healthcare workers will be vaccinated here.
My presumption is that 60% to 70% of Ethiopians will be willing to get the vaccine.
It will be a rough road because currently, we don't have enough doses. But if we have enough, the programme will go smoothly like any other vaccine campaign.
Vaccines should be distributed fairly to all districts, based on their infection rates of course.
What is your advice to fellow Ethiopians?
Stay positive: brighter days are coming. Be patient.
And please, please, please follow the necessary precautionary measures to protect our fathers, our mothers and our elderly people, because they are the ones who are vulnerable and paying the price.
So as much as possible, please try to protect yourself and others from COVID-19. Don't forget to wear masks.
We have seen the deaths, we have seen the horrible losses that different people have suffered - and you should not go through that.
We will always be there for you, but be there for us.
This interview was shortened and edited for clarity.
(Reporting by Emeline Wuilbercq @emwuilbercq; Editing by Tom Finn and Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)