BOTOROAGA, Romania (Reuters) – Maria Coanda, aged 81 with a heart condition, should be at the head of the queue in Romania’s priority COVID-19 vaccination programme.
But she is still waiting for her first shot in her small southern village of Bujoreni, three months after the start of the scheme. She does not know how to sign up for it online and says her doctor has not been in touch to help her out.
She is one of a group of vulnerable people that officials say are at risk of falling through the cracks as Romania steps up its vaccination plans.
“If they bring the vaccine, I want it,” Coanda said as she kept herself busy in her sparse front yard, laundry drying on a clothesline in the sun.
The vaccines are there, say officials. But many older people do not have the skills or information to register themselves and Romania has a shortage of general physicians to sign up for them, particularly in rural areas.
“The chronically ill and the elderly who can’t nag their children or family physicians to put them on vaccine lists are lost in the desert. They have a water bottle but can’t unscrew the top,” said one public policy expert who asked not to be named.
The state spends the least on healthcare in the European Union, Eurostat data shows. One in four Romanians lack sufficient access to basic health services, leaving Romania with the bloc’s highest mortality rate from treatable diseases, according to the figures.
Authorities have acknowledged some teething problems but promise there will be enough vaccines for all.
“Certainly there are disparities between urban and rural areas … There will be areas where we must take additional steps,” deputy Health Minister Andrei Baciu told Reuters.
From April, he said, officials will let general physicians vaccinate their patients in their local clinics and will also send mobile units to remote villages.
But for now, out in the countryside, some people are still waiting.
“In rural areas, people do not really have the means to travel,” said Dr. Sorin Popa, busy vaccinating patients with AstraZeneca’s shot at a new centre in the village of Botoroaga.
He said most of the 900 patients who had been injected there so far had not been elderly from the surrounding villages. The vast majority had travelled about 75km (45 miles) from the capital.
Some had been relatively young – the government opened up vaccines to the bulk of the population in March. Some said they had successfully signed up online and chosen to travel to the countryside to get round the longer lines in the city.
“I wanted it done fast,” said Sebastian Munteanu, a 39-year-old IT worker from Bucharest.
(Reporting by Luiza Ilie; Editing by Andrew Heavens)