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Fear of severe side effects upsets Sicily's COVID vaccination plans

ROME, May 4 (Reuters) - Sicily will start offering COVID-19 vaccines to people over 50 to speed up its inoculation programme which is being hampered by a reluctant older population who fear potentially severe side effects, the regional governor said on Tuesday.

Like many European countries, Italy briefly halted inoculations using the vaccine made by AstraZeneca in March when blood clot concerns surfaced. It has since resumed them for those aged 60 and above after EU regulators said the benefits outweighed the risks.

But in Sicily, where five people who had received the AstraZeneca vaccine died, the elderly are reluctant to be inoculated with the shot. No causal link has been established between the five deaths and the vaccine.

“Media articles linking deaths to vaccinations has resulted in an understandable but unjustified psychosis,” Sicilian governor Nello Musumeci told reporters.

“The government told us that the over 80s and vulnerable people had to receive the vaccine first ... but clearly we have no coercive powers to convince the reluctant to vaccinate,” Musumeci he said.

On March 11, a prosecutor in the Sicilian city of Syracuse placed two doctors and a nurse under investigation for possible manslaughter, following the sudden death of a navy officer hours after he had received the AstraZeneca shot.

Musumeci said the shot would be offered to the over-50s age group from Wednesday in order not to waste any doses and to get Sicily’s inoculation rate up.

“We don’t want to defy the national plan ... but we have to move forward. We have waited long enough and no one can accuse us of not giving priority to the weakest and most fragile”, Musumeci said.

Italy’s inoculation programme has steadily gathered pace in recent weeks as supplies increased. By the end of April, inoculations reached 500,000 a day, only to fall back below the threshold in the last two days.

Of Italy’s 20 regions, Sicily is the worst performer in vaccinating over-70s and over-80s, data from Gimbe health institute shows.

Nearly half the over-80s -- those most at risk from coronavirus -- have received the recommended double shot in Sicily, compared with 70% of the same age group in Italy as a whole. (Reporting by Angelo Amante, editing by Gavin Jones and Raissa Kasolowsky)

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