People in Poland long appeared hesitant to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Then they saw celebrities and politicians scandalously jump the line for the jab. Now there's not enough vaccine to go around.
Poland has launched a nationwide vaccination campaign and there is huge demand among seniors in particular. Just months ago, there was considerable anti-vaccine sentiment, but this has subsided. The problem now is a shortage of doses.
Queues have been forming in front of medical centers all over Poland ever since people over 70 were requested to make appointments for their first shot of the COVID-19 vaccine. Instead of redialing the overloaded telephone hotline, many people left to wait in line and hope for the best.
"My wife waited for a long time on the phone and then she was just kicked off the waiting list," an older man in Szczecin told DW. "So, I'm just seeing what my chances are here." He said some people had started queuing in the night.
Like in many other countries, there is a shortage of the COVID-19 vaccine in Poland. Most of the doses were produced by BioNTech-Pfizer, but the country also received 29,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine. These were mainly administered to people over 80 who were able to register in advance.
There are now no more appointments until the end of March, according to the Polish Ministry of Health. It also said the hotline had been overwhelmed when registration began for people aged over 70 and some 300,000 people tried calling at the same time. That, the ministry said, was more than the 2,000 staff members and phone lines could handle.
Just a few months ago, not many in Poland would have expected such demand for the vaccine. A November poll found that only 43% of the population wanted to be vaccinated. This had risen to almost 70% in early January. The decrease in skepticism may well have been triggered by a scandal. It was revealed at the end of last year that in addition to frontline health care workers, who were among the first to be vaccinated, some celebrities had received the vaccine and effectively jumped the queue.
Actor Krystyna Janda assured the private television channel TVN24 just a few days later that she had asked whether the vaccine dose being administered to her had not been taken away from somebody more in need and had been promised that this was not the case. Others who received the vaccine said that they assumed that they were taking part in a vaccination campaign and being administered "leftover" doses.
An audit of the Hospital of the Medical University of Warsaw, where the vaccines were administered, found that almost 200 people who were not health workers and had no ties to the clinic, had benefitted from the 450 doses that it had received.
Some politicians also received the vaccine before their scheduled turn and posted images on social media. This has led to the dismissal of a district administrator for the governing Law and Justice Party (PiS).
Poland's priority groups
But the scandal has led many Poles to put aside their concerns about the vaccine. Now the question is how to administer to it as fast as possible.
The priority groups have changed a little in the past week. After Group 0, which includes people aged over 80, it is the turn of the over-70s and then the over-60s. They will be followed by people with chronic illnesses. Then teachers, military personnel and police will roll up their sleeves for the jab.
Over 700,000 doses have been administered so far; almost 2% of the nation's population received at least one shot.
With regard to vaccination, the same rules apply for Polish citizens and foreign nationals, who are in the country officially and legally.
"Every person who is living in Poland legally and has a temporary or permanent residency can be vaccinated, Michal Pawel Dworczyk, the head of the prime minister's office in charge of the national vaccination campaign, recently said. He added that there would be no conditions and that the vaccine would be free of charge for foreign nationals who were employed in Poland.
Ukrainians also eligible for vaccination
Officially, there are about half a million Ukrainians in the country. In 2019, they received three-quarters of the work permits granted by Poland. They are also the foreign nationals who contribute most to Poland's social security system. However, there are also a number of Ukrainians who are not registered or who risk being ignored by the system because of red tape.
Olga Duda, who runs the Association of Ukrainians in Poland, told DW that bureaucratic procedures were extremely slow and many Ukrainians received their residence cards months after arriving in Poland, if at all. She said many came into the country on the basis of the "small border traffic" law or more simplified procedures and would therefore neither be able to profit from Poland's vaccination scheme, nor from Ukraine's, which in any case had hardly begun.
This could turn out to be a problem in the long term because the virus might continue to cross the border when the border is re-opened for migrant workers from countries east of Poland. Dworczyk said that the group of people eligible for the vaccine might be expanded but that this would depend on the availability of the vaccine and the further development of the pandemic in Poland.
He said Ukrainians in priority groups, such as doctors, care workers and paramedics, had already received the vaccine. He added that the number would probably increase because of simplified entry regulations for doctors from non-EU states introduced at the end of last year.