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1st vaccines may land Wednesday; bring hope of protection for seniors by spring

As UK starts giving Pfizer shots, Israeli doctors buoyed with optimism, eager to follow suit and working ‘day and night’ to get ready — even transforming sports stadium into clinic

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Illustrative: Couriers in protective clothing deliver vaccine supplies (Prostock-Studio via iStock by Getty Images)
Illustrative: Couriers in protective clothing deliver vaccine supplies (Prostock-Studio via iStock by Getty Images)

With the first COVID shots expected to land in Israel imminently, doctors are gearing up for a vaccination drive that could deploy tens of thousands of daily shots to get all the country’s elderly protected by late March.

Excitement rose in the medical community on Tuesday, as health teams told The Times of Israel that a large batch of shots will land on Thursday, and Hebrew media reported that a smaller consignment may land by Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the Health Ministry reportedly told Israel’s health maintenance organizations that December 20 is the target date to begin vaccinating Israelis against COVID-19.

“If the vaccines arrive here soon, I would say that by March, the health workers and elderly will be covered,” said Hadassah Medical Center virologist Rivka Abulafia-Lapid. “And then in April we will start with the rest of population.”

She added: “Next summer should be towards the end of the pandemic here in Israel, though we don’t know what the situation will be in the wider world.”

Some unconfirmed media reports have indicated Israel may receive as many as four million doses (enough for two million people) by month’s end.

A medic holding a vaccine shot (Mongkolchon Akesin via iStock by Getty Images)

The Health Ministry confirmed vaccines will start arriving “in the coming days,” but didn’t provide exact timing, or quantities. However, an informed source estimated that 100,000 shots will arrive Thursday.

The US Food and Drug Administration will review Pfizer’s trial data later this week. If it approves the vaccine for use, Israeli officials are expected to give it their approval, using it to start the national inoculation program and adding Moderna vaccines to its anti-virus arsenal when they are ready early next year.

One Israeli hospital, Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center, has asked for special permission to vaccinate its staff on the basis of Britain’s authorization, if shots become available before FDA approval. However, top Health Ministry officials told Channel 12 this was unlikely to happen.

Israel’s health community is buoyed by the UK on Tuesday starting the West’s first widescale inoculation program. While some doctors are warning that vaccination will be slow and that the nation will be far from immunity even in a year, there is a wave of optimism this week.

90-year-old Margaret Keenan, the first patient in the UK to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, administered by nurse May Parsons at University Hospital, Coventry, England, Dec. 8, 2020 (Jacob King/Pool via AP)

The Health Ministry is reportedly aiming to vaccinate two million Israelis in a six-week drive. Hadassah’s Abulafia-Lapid thinks that a large-scale program could be realistic, given Israel’s strong community health infrastructure.

A spokeswoman from the large healthcare provider Maccabi, confirmed the Thursday shipment and said her organization’s staff were working around the clock to make mass vaccination possible. “It’s realistic,” she said. “It depends on readiness of the health maintenance organizations like ours, and we’re working on it day and night so we’ll be ready.”

Her nurses will be able to give 20,000 shots a day, she said, adding: “It’ll be challenging and not easy, but we did 20,000 a day at the peak of flu vaccination last year, so it is possible.”

Vaccinations will be offered in local clinics, with the addition of large hubs. Thousands of Maccabi members per day will get their shots at a sports stadium that has fallen quiet during the pandemic — the Shlomo Group Arena in northern Tel Aviv. It is currently used for administering flu shots.

Ronen Ben-Ami, head of the Infectious Diseases Unit at Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center. (courtesy of Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center)

Ronen Ben-Ami, director of the Infectious Diseases division at Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center, thinks that Israel’s small size — which means nobody lives far from a clinic — and its strong emergency preparedness will mean that vaccination can happen quickly and effectively.

“Israel has strong infrastructure for dealing with emergencies, including the Home Front Command and the health maintenance organizations, so we have the tools to do this well,” he said.

“The logistics are probably the easier part; the harder challenge is to get the population to accept this vaccine and to understand the alternative,” Ben-Ami said.

“Coronavirus vaccines are new, and there’s a need to explain them to the public, gain its confidence, and make it clear that the alternative is continuation of the pandemic and continued risk to vulnerable populations. Explaining this is all part of the challenge.”

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