BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN — Brunei kicked off Phase 3 of its COVID-19 vaccination programme on Monday, extending the rollout to all adults over 18.

Long queues were seen outside the vaccination centre at the Indoor Stadium as people arrived ahead of their appointment times, eager to secure a jab.

A total of 1,149 people received their first dose of the vaccine on Monday, with vaccination centres in all districts opening six days a week to accommodate the expected influx of people.

The Ministry of Health is encouraging the public to use the BruHealth app to book their vaccination slots, as walk-ins will only be allowed for senior citizens and those with special needs in order to prevent overcrowding at the centres.

A man registers for the COVID-19 vaccination at the Indoor Stadium. Photo: Rasidah Hj Abu Bakar/The Scoop

Mohd Firdaus Abdullah, a Filipino working in Brunei, was one person who lined up at the Indoor Stadium on Monday to get the COVID-19 shot.

“The whole process took one and a half hours, from registration to completion of observation period,” he said. “The vaccine is ok so far, I don’t feel any side effects. But they gave us panadol just in case.”

Firdaus, who works in the food industry, said he is the first to get vaccinated in his workplace, while his colleagues are scheduled to do the same in the coming weeks. 

“I just want to advise those who are still hesitant in taking the vaccine, to take it now, especially for us foreigners. Whatever vaccine that is available to you, you have to take it to protect you and your family.” 

Filipino expat Mohd Firdaus Abdullah after getting his COVID-19 jab on July 5, 2021. Photo: Rudolf Portillo/The Scoop

With recent surveys showing a degree of vaccine hesitancy among the population, one senior citizen opted to wait until the ministry announced the rollout of the Moderna vaccine, rather than take the Sinopharm or Oxford-AstraZeneca which were used in Phase 1 and 2.

Seventy-year-old Pg Hjh Hadizah, who would have been eligible to receive the vaccine as early as April 26, said she preferred to wait for the first shipment of Moderna, which arrived in Brunei on June 20

According to the latest figures from the ministry, 23.4 percent of adults in Brunei have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine, equivalent to 16.9 percent of the total population.

About three percent of the population has been fully vaccinated after receiving two doses.  

The government’s target is to inoculate 70 percent of the population by the end of the year.

People wait for their number to be called at the Indoor Stadium vaccination centre. Photo: Rudolf Portillo/The Scoop

Over 92,000 doses administered in 3 months

Since the vaccination drive began on April 3, Brunei has been prioritising frontline workers, senior citizens, those with chronic illness and overseas-bound students in Phases 1 and 2 of the rollout.

A total of 92,298 doses have been administered as of July 5, with an average of 1,791 doses administered each day in the past week.

The health ministry has been using the Oxford-AstraZeneca and Sinopharm vaccines thus far, but Moderna will form the bulk of Brunei’s vaccine supply in Phase 3.

Shipments of the Pfizer vaccine are expected later in the year, although deliveries worldwide have been hit by manufacturing delays. 

The government has secured at least 660,000 doses of four vaccine types — 52,000 doses of Sinopharm; 108,000 doses of AstraZeneca; 200,000 doses of Moderna; and 300,000 doses of Pfizer.

Since those under 18 are not eligible to receive the vaccine under the current plan, almost all adults in Brunei would have to be inoculated to achieve the government’s 70 percent target.

Vaccination rate picks up steam

Although the vaccine uptake was sluggish in the first month of the rollout due to the low turnout of senior citizens and the temporary suspension of AstraZeneca, the pace began to pick up in mid-May with the introduction of the government’s “opt-in programme”, which saw large numbers of foreign workers sign up for the AstraZeneca vaccine when it was reinstated.

“What we found during the opt-in programme was a large number number of non-locals eager to be vaccinated,” said Lydiana Harliza Hj Abd Kadir, the senior health officer in charge of the Indoor Stadium vaccination centre.

“We’re happy to have anyone come in, but we wish more locals would come in.”

Lydiana estimated that more than 50 percent of the people who participated in the opt-in programme, which ran from May 6 to 29, were non-locals.

Although the ministry restricted the routine use of AstraZeneca to senior citizens, it said those under 60 can still consent to the shot as long as they are aware of the slightly elevated risk of blood clots in younger people.

The health ministry said more than 20,108 doses of the Oxford jab were administered during the opt-in programme, providing a major boost to the government’s vaccination campaign.

On the final few days of the programme, staff at vaccination centres were overwhelmed by the hundreds people lining up, having to turn people away once they had reached their capacity for the day.

As the vaccination drive gathers momentum, Lydiana said they will limit the number of walk-ins and focus on getting people to book appointments via the BruHealth app.

“The process is so much smoother with use of the app, people can come at the allotted time, they don’t have to wait outside in the heat.”

She added that they will also print posters and signage in Mandarin, Bengali, Hindi and Tagalog to help bridge language barriers with some migrant workers.

“Some of them don’t speak Malay or English, so we need a translator or their employer who can translate because we need them to consent to the vaccine. We ask a lot of questions about their health, if they are taking medication and so on in order to ensure patient safety.”