The February 20 community transmission cluster crossed 700 cases on Friday and has now spread to at least nine provinces across the country. As the severity of the cluster gets grimmer – with Cambodia reporting its first death on Thursday – Phnom Penh residents have been flocking to get one of the two COVID-19 vaccines on offer – often turned away due to unavailability.
Sien Umlida, a 37-year-old resident of Tuol Kuok district, went to the National Pediatric Hospital on Wednesday to get either the Sinopharm vaccine, which is available to people under the age of 60 but disqualifies people with a large list of existing medical conditions, or the AstraZeneca vaccine, which has far fewer restrictions on who can take the medication.
Doctors at the hospital told Umlida that they had run out of first doses, and any remaining vaccines were being stored for people who would need their second shot in the next few weeks.
“I think that the people rushed to get the vaccine because COVID-19 is spreading quickly,” Umlida said. “Previously, I asked the elderly to get vaccinated and they did not come, but, when [the cluster] spread out many of the elderly came to get the vaccine.”
Umlida said her mother, who is 62 years old, was able to get her first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine and will be fully vaccinated in the next few weeks.
Cambodia received 600,000 doses of the Sinopharm vaccine from China, enough to vaccinate 300,000 people. The Chinese are expected to send another batch of 400,000 shots but their arrival has yet to be confirmed.
Also, Cambodia got 324,000 doses of the Indian-made AstraZeneca vaccine through the World Health Organization’s COVAX Facility, a global attempt to make vaccine availability equitable. The country will get as many as 6.4 million doses, for 20 percent of the population, through COVAX.
In total, Cambodia has so far received 924,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, which can vaccinate 462,000 people in this first phase of inoculations.
There has been an uptick in vaccinations, said Kong Sanya, who is the deputy director of Calmette Hospital. But the hospital administrator would not say why people were rushing to get the vaccine.
“You can understand what the problem is yourself,” he said.
He said the hospital had suspended giving first doses of the vaccine and were saving the remaining doses for people who were waiting for their second dose.
“We do not want to suspend [vaccinations] but it is a principle of the Health Ministry because they need to keep vaccines for the people who [need a second dose],” Sanya said.
According to the Health Ministry, almost 130,000 people had received at least one dose of either vaccine as of March 11, and 96,080 security personnel had been inoculated as of last Saturday, taking the total to just under 230,000 people who got COVID-19 shots.
Or Vandine, a Health Ministry secretary of state, said on Thursday that hospitals would stop administering first doses starting Thursday and that by Saturday all provinces should have finished their first dose allocations.
She added on Thursday evening that some provinces still had vaccines in store and the process of giving the first doses would end soon.
“Some vaccines that were distributed to provinces have not finished vaccination yet,” Vandine said via messaging application Telegram.
Ngy Meng, director of the Khmer Soviet Friendship Hospital, and Nhim Angkearbos, director of the National Pediatric Hospital, could not be reached for comment
The number of vaccinations given a day – statistics which are shared by the Health Ministry daily – have also seen an increase in recent weeks.
In the first two weeks of vaccinations, from February 10 to 23, the government vaccinated 2,600 and 5,200 people, respectively.
But as the February 20 community cluster showed no signs of dissipating, hospitals vaccinated 25,400 people in the third week and 56,200 people in the fourth week. This jumped up to 40,400 people getting a dose on March 10 and March 11 combined, after which people were told vaccines had run out for now.
On Wednesday, Chum Chantha received his vaccine shot at the Khmer Soviet Hospital. The 54-year-old man lives in Kandal province’s Sa’ang district and traveled to Phnom Penh to get his shot.
Chantha said it was important for him to get the vaccine because he rides a tuk-tuk and is in close contact with passengers all the time. After the start of the February 20 incident, he stopped working temporarily.
“I suspended riding since the February 20 outbreak because I am scared I will get infected with COVID-19,” he said.
“I think that many people have come to get vaccinated because the number of people with COVID-19 infections has increased more and more.”