Ministry official: Doctor's vaccine offer to fellow Rotarians unacceptable

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Social affairs ministry deputy secretary Maris Jesse. Source: ERR

Ministry of Social Affairs Deputy Secretary General Maris Jesse has hit out at the head of Valga Hospital's actions in offering coronavirus vaccines on a preferential basis to fellow members of humanitarian development society Rotary International.

Jesse, who is also board chair of Tartu University Hospital – Valga Hospital's parent organization – told local daily Tartu Postimees (link in Estonian) that the doses which Valga Hospital's director, Margus Ulst, offered to Rotary International members, popularly known as the Rotary Club and including the women's arm of the organization, the Inner Wheel, as revealed in a leaked email, were meant for priority groups, which in this case means the hospital staff.

While Ulst said in his defense that there were hospital staff who did not want to be vaccinated, meaning the surplus – boosted by dividing vaccine vials into six doses rather than the five originally expected – would have gone to waste, Jesse said the rules clearly state who this surplus should have gone to.

Jesse said: "If there were hospital staff who did not want to be vaccinated, this should have been offered immediately to the next available healthcare professionals in Valga County, or to vaccinate patients in nursing homes, or those under their (i.e. Valga Hospital's) own care," Jesse said.

Tartu University Hospital to conduct investigation

Tartu University Hospital has now approached internal auditors to ascertain how many front-line health workers had been inoculated at the time Ulst offered spare vaccines, which he said Wednesday numbered about 10, and how many have been vaccinated since then, Jesse said.

Margus Ulst appearing on Wednesday's "Pealtnägija". Source: ERR

Ulst, who offered the doses to fellow members at the Tartu chapter of the Rotary Club himself appeared on ETV investigative show "Pealtnägija" Wednesday evening, and was given the floor to give an account of himself.

He said the scheme had been a mistake. "I admit in retrospect that it was a bad idea. I came up with the idea on the Thursday (January 7 – ed.). We were due to have a [Rotary] meeting on Friday, but as early as Thursday, a clubmate used this suggestion of mine to sound out who the at-risk club members who would be willing to be vaccinated with these sixth doses were (i.e. older members – ed.)."

Ulst: Other Rotary Club member's use of COVID-19 dose for private gain 'disgusting'

Ulst added that potential recipients were to be informed that the doses were to be administered unofficially and at their own risk. Ulst also pointed the finger at a fellow Rotary Club member working in private medicine who then attempted to benefit financially from the offer. "Yes, it appeared, I admit, a really bad idea in this way, but the way the clubmate used it again for his own personal gain is I would say disgusting."

Ulst said about half the required doses at Valga Hospital had been received by the time he made his offer (coronavirus vaccines started arriving in Estonia at Christmastime – ed.), totaling around 225 doses for a facility with 321 staff and 110 patients, which he said was acceptable in the circumstances, i.e. that there was an overall shortage of vaccines nationwide, which he said became clear by the second or third week.

Procurement process faults a factor

Ulst continued his criticisms of the system which had, he said, necessitated his unofficial dealing in coronavirus vaccines by adding he had had difficulty finding volunteers for vaccination, even going himself to the hospital's pharmacy to ask if staff would like the injection, and saved on vial of vaccine by such ad hoc methods alone

The refusal rate at Valga Hospital was between 40 and 50 percent, he added, and the procurement process as a whole had not helped.

"I think that the country would have done a great deal better if it had defined from the outset the doses in which vaccination should be organized," he said.

Ulst said he had difficulty finding volunteers for vaccination, even going himself to the hospital's pharmacy to ask if staff would like the injection, and saved on vial of vaccine by such ad hoc methods alone

Ulst: If email with offer had not been leaked, Rotary Club would likely not have approved my scheme anyway

Ulst also said he had heard from other family doctors that it was possible to extract six doses from a coronavirus vaccine vial rather than five.

Ulst said that had the email with his offer not been leaked, and gone ahead, the Tartu chapter of the Rotary Club would likely not have approved the scheme anyway.

"We are using conditional language here. I don't think the club would have approved it, still smelling as it is like a potential conflict of ethics," he said.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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