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Israel is in a Good Place to Start Inoculation Drive

The recently installed coronavirus czar, Prof. Nahman Ash, expressed hope on Monday that a vaccination campaign in Israel would allow normal life to resume by Passover, which begins March 28.

Ash’s remarks to Army Radio are based on the health system’s expectation that by then some 7 million doses of vaccine will have arrived. However, not all officials involved with the vaccines share Ash’s optimistic view.

Pfizer, whose vaccine was the first to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, has committed to providing Israel with 4 million doses, apparently by the end of this month. According to the understandings with Pfizer, this number is expected to reach 7 million during the first quarter of next year. In addition, the FDA is expected to approve Moderna’s vaccine shortly; that company is expected to supply Israel with 6 million doses, some of them in the first quarter.

Every person needs two doses of the vaccine, 21 days apart.

The Health Ministry is planning to begin the vaccination campaign on Sunday, December 20, with medical personnel to be the first ones vaccinated. Around a week later, assuming additional vaccines come from Pfizer as promised, the inoculation of various high-risk groups will start, beginning with the elderly living in nursing homes, where the highest mortality rate from the virus has been seen in Israel to date.

Given the number of doses expected to arrive, along with the concern that some members of high-risk groups will be hesitant to get a vaccine that was approved so speedily, the health system is weighing whether to allow the public at large to be vaccinated at an early stage, even though the priorities for vaccination have just recently been set by a committee of experts.

Health Ministry director general Prof. Hezi Levy confirmed Sunday that opening the vaccination campaign to all comers would be considered. In accordance with the recommendations from the United States, the Pfizer vaccines will not be given to children under 16 or to pregnant women. People with severe allergies will also not be vaccinated at this stage.

The success of the vaccination campaign is still dependent on there not being any serious problems during the process. These could include safety issues revealed during the early rounds of vaccination that would halt global distribution of the vaccines, unexpected delays in the supply chain, or the influence of fear and propaganda by anti-vaxxers on the readiness of people to get the shots.

The Health Ministry is preparing an information campaign, integrating physicians and scientists on the one hand, and celebrities on the other, in an effort to motivate people to be vaccinated.

Also under consideration is a “green passport” that would be issued to those who get both doses of the vaccine, and which would exempt them from quarantine following exposure to a sick person, or facilitate entry to performances, sporting events and the like once they resume.

The Health Ministry is talking about vaccinating some 60,000 people a day, seven days a week, during the first stage. But the HMOs, which are preparing to open hundreds of vaccination stations, say that later on that figure could could rise to 80,000 vaccinations a day.

Israel’s medical personnel, including nursing care workers, total around 250,000 people.

According to the Central Bureau of Statistics data from September, a total of 9.25 million people live in Israel, of whom 11.55 percent (around 1,064,000 people) are over 65.

In addition, some 7.5 percent of those under 65 (some 614,000 people) are registered as having underlying health conditions that increase their risk of a severe reaction to the coronavirus.

Along with vital workers in jobs that require frequent contact with the public (like bus drivers and supermarket workers), between 2.2 million and 2.5 million people will need to be vaccinated during the first stage.

If this group of people gets vaccinated quickly, it could lead to a dramatic drop in serious coronavirus cases and deaths from the virus within only a few months. That would require 5 million doses of the vaccine, which according to the optimistic forecast will be available in January. Excess supply will be used to vaccinate people who are not in the highest priority groups.

If the calculations are correct and between 60,000 to 80,000 people can be vaccinated a day, this is a campaign that could be wrapped up in two-and-a-half months, after which there would be a high degree of immunity among those at high risk.

According to various assessments, at least 60 to 70 percent of a population must have either had COVID-19 or been vaccinated against it to create herd immunity.

Israel is in a better position to conduct a national vaccination campaign than many other countries.

The population is relatively small and the distance between the “periphery” and the central cities is scant. There is also a logistical system that can store and transport the vaccines even at the extreme temperatures required by the Pfizer vaccine. Israelis generally respond well to vaccination campaigns and most of all, the HMO system is accessible, effective and more experienced than those of other countries in coping with large numbers of people.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been making a concerted effort these past few weeks to hasten the vaccines’ arrival. He is also making sure to take public credit for it. Presumably he recognizes the failure of his government in managing the crisis, reflected only in the past few weeks in the problematic approach to the Arab community, where infection rates are high; in the lack of supervision over those entering at Ben-Gurion International Airport, which is still a source of “imported” coronavirus; and in the unreasonable and constantly changing decisions regarding the pandemic-related restrictions. The launch of a speedy and broad vaccination campaign seems to be Israel’s primary path out of the crisis.

But Netanyahu also knows that a drop in infections and deaths during February and March will be a boon to him if there are elections in March. It will also herald an expected rebound for the economy. Netanyahu may have some other things up his sleeve, of course, the most dramatic of which would be an upgrade in the relations with Saudi Arabia, either as a last-ditch effort by the Trump administration or as the first initiative of the Biden administration.

But to translate the vaccination achievements into political success, Netanyahu must also prevent a renewed, wild spread of the virus, as happened before the imposition of the nationwide lockdown in September. The COVID-19 statistics have been consistently rising – in the number of new confirmed cases, the proportion of positive tests among all tests, and the number of people in serious condition.

It looks as if the premier will try to avoid a third lockdown as best he can, fearing that this would generate sharp public opposition and even widespread civil disobedience.

Header: Pfizer vaccines in storage at the Teva Pharmaceutical Company in Shoham, December 13, 2020.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen

Source: Amos Harel – HAARETZ