West Bengal's private hospitals are increasingly worried about the phase III Covid vaccination drive beginning May 1. They have been asked to procure the doses directly from manufacturers and return to the government any remaining stocks after April 30.
If they fail to procure fresh stocks from the vaccine-makers and are forced to stop the process of vaccination, "that has to be communicated to citizens through a public notice to avoid harassment", a government advisory dated April 26 has said.
"I would request you to immediately take up the matter with the relevant vaccine manufacturers...The state government shall continue to offer any facilitation as may be required for the purpose," the advisory said.
The government had supplied the doses for the first two phases. But under the Centre's Liberalised Pricing and Accelerated National COVID-19 Vaccination Strategy, this has changed.
"We are approaching manufacturers but not getting a clear response. Hopefully, there will be clarity soon, then we can start Phase 3 vaccinations from May 3," said Rupak Barua, president of the Association of Hospitals of Eastern India.
Standalone hospitals may lack the heft to procure vaccine doses for themselves when the manufacturers have much bigger national and international commitments to meet.
"Some of our colleagues have informally contacted them and we were given to understand that there is a five-month waiting period for supplies, that they are committed to a lot of other countries, to government hospitals, and state governments," said Dr Simmardeep Singh Gill, COO of CK Birla Hospitals.
The Centre's new vaccination strategy comes into effect on May 1 and will now have all those above 18 years of age becoming eligible for COVID-19 vaccines. This was restricted to those above 45 years of age till now.
This new policy has now thrown a spanner into the hospitals' plans.
"While the number of people coming in for vaccinations is going to substantially increase, we're going to substantially decrease the number of facilities that are dispensing the vaccine," Dr Gill said.
"We have appealed to the government to maintain status quo. We are happy to pay if there is a commercial upside in the price of the vial," he said.
Another risk factor here is that of crowding. If only government hospitals are allowed to provide Covid vaccines henceforth, thousands are likely to queue up before them, "throwing social distancing norms to the wind", according to Dr Gill. Those coming to get inoculated would be exposed to the disease at the very venue that is supposed to protect them.
Government sources say they were forced into this situation after the Union Health and Family Welfare Ministry released a circular on Monday saying 50 per cent of the vaccines produced by the manufacturers would go to the government of India, the rest to the states and private hospitals. It also said that the Centre-supplied vaccines were meant only for frontline and health care workers, apart from those aged above 45.
For those in the 18-45 age group, state governments and private hospitals must procure vaccines directly from the manufacturer. The Centre will continue to give the second dose to those above 45 already administered the first dose, according to sources.
In West Bengal, both the BJP and the Trinamool have promised free universal vaccination. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has even set a date for the event: May 5.
But with the new Phase 3 vaccination strategy, the winning party may have to re-evaluate its promise.