88% of Israelis aged 50+ have been vaccinated or recovered from COVID-19

While serious cases are decreasing, downward trend in infections has halted, prompting officials to call into question further steps to reopen the economy

A Israeli woman receives a vaccination in Jerusalem, on February 15, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
A Israeli woman receives a vaccination in Jerusalem, on February 15, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Health Ministry data on Wednesday showed that some 88 percent of Israelis aged 50 and up have either been vaccinated against COVID-19 or recovered from the disease, as serious illnesses have dropped but the downward trend in infections has halted.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said on Twitter that some 75% of those aged at least 50 are already eligible for a so-called Green Pass allowing them to attend various public spaces that have been largely off-limits since the pandemic began. The remaining 13% presumably still have to get their second vaccine shot or have gotten it less than a week ago.

According to ministry data, 4,811,712 Israelis — 52% of the total population — have received the first vaccine dose, of whom 3,503,621 (38%) have also received the second.

Several million Israelis are ineligible for the vaccine, most of them under the age of 16.

The total number of infections rose by 4,265 Tuesday, bringing the tally to 787,211, including 42,733 active cases. Of them, 717 were in serious condition, including 266 classified as critical and 224 on ventilators.

The death toll grew to 5,797.

New deaths and infections have continued to decline from January’s highs, and the number of seriously ill COVID-19 patients on Tuesday dropped to its lowest point since December 30.

People walk on Jaffa street in downtown Jerusalem on March 1, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

However, the basic reproduction number, or R0, representing the average number of people each virus carrier infects, has gone over 1, meaning the outbreak is now worsening rather than abating, which it had been doing for several weeks. The growth in infections is largely attributed to the prevalence of more infectious strains such as the UK variant.

Health Ministry officials have expressed concern over the reversal of the downward trend in infections, with Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch saying it could endanger a planned further reopening of businesses planned for Sunday.

“Nothing is decided. On Thursday a decision will be made in accordance with coronavirus figures,” Kisch told the Ynet news site. “If the R0 number is above 1.1, only the education system will be reopened.”

Coronavirus czar Nachman Ash visits Ziv hospital in Safed, December 24, 2020 (David Cohen/Flash90)

Nachman Ash, the coordinator of the government’s pandemic response, told Radio 103FM that the reopening could cause a further rise in infections that could lead his ministry to recommend imposing another nationwide lockdown before the March 23 Knesset elections.

The Education Ministry on Tuesday made public its proposal for students in grades 7-10 to return to the classroom in low- to medium-infected areas on Sunday. Students in those grades are the last to remain at home, studying remotely, under the pandemic restrictions. Schools have been largely shuttered in Israel for much of the past year, leading to frequent protests by parents and children.

Infection rates among children and school reopenings are a central concern as Israel steps out of its third virus lockdown. Children represent a larger proportion of infections than earlier in the pandemic, presumably due to the new virus variants and the fact that a significant share of adults have been vaccinated.

The high-level coronavirus cabinet on Tuesday approved a plan to more fully reopen Ben Gurion Airport ahead of the upcoming elections, following criticism of the government panel that has been deciding which Israelis may enter the country amid the ongoing closure of the airport.

The move increases the number of Israelis permitted to enter the country to 3,000 per day starting March 7 and scraps the need to get entry permission from the Exceptions Committee.

Non-citizens will still require permission to enter Israel, while Israelis flying out who have not yet been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 will need the committee’s approval, according to a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office.

The proposal still needs approval from the full cabinet.

A Hadassah Medical Center medical staff member receives the second round of the COVID-19 vaccine, on January 11, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel’s land and air gateways have been largely closed since January 25, with Ben Gurion Airport shuttered for all but a few special flights by Israeli and some foreign airlines to bring back citizens stranded abroad, leaving thousands unable to return.

The entrance of more dangerous virus variants into Israel is a top concern for health officials and one of the main reasons the borders were closed.

The Health Ministry said on Tuesday that it has identified three cases of the so-called New York variant of the coronavirus, the first time the mutation has been found in Israel. The ministry said all three cases were in the same family.

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