Health chief says kids to get COVID vaccines in schools: ‘We’re in an emergency’

Amid fight with education minister on issue, Horowitz says inoculations will be carried out wherever needed, including in educational institutions at start of academic year

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz receives his third dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at the Meir Medical Center in Kfar Saba, August 13, 2021 (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz receives his third dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at the Meir Medical Center in Kfar Saba, August 13, 2021 (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz said Friday that children will be vaccinated against COVID-19 in schools at the start of the academic year, despite a dispute with the education minister on the issue.

“At the start of the school year we will be vaccinating in schools. We will be vaccinating everywhere, because we are in an emergency and we will make every effort we can to get everywhere and vaccinate everyone who needs it,” Horowitz said as he received a third dose of the coronavirus vaccine, hours after Israel widened its inoculation campaign to the over-50s.

“Any head of an authority or institution who wants one will receive a mobile [vaccination] unit,” the minister said.

On Thursday, Horowitz told Channel 12 news that schools are efficient locations for reaching unvaccinated children and, with the permission of their parents, inoculating them.

The statements came amid a tussle between health officials and Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton, who opposes giving shots during the school day and has courted controversy by previously calling the idea of vaccinating students in schools a “crime.”

In an apparent challenge to Shasha-Biton over who has the final word on vaccinating children in schools, Horowitz said Thursday that “the authority over health, including inside schools, is that of the Health Ministry, that is the law.”

Horowitz added that “the decision regarding vaccinations and everything to do with health is the decision of the health minister, and that is my authority according to the law.”

Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton attends a New Hope faction meeting at the Knesset, on August 2, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

After Israel appeared to have put the coronavirus pandemic behind it in June, the past two months have seen a rapidly accelerating spread in morbidity, fueled by the highly contagious Delta variant.

According to the latest figures on Friday morning, 462 people are in serious condition from COVID-19. Health Ministry data showed that among unvaccinated Israelis aged 60-plus, there are 120.9 people per 100,000 in serious condition. Among the vaccinated the figure is 19.1 and the partially vaccinated figure was 45.3.

The government has made vaccination its main weapon in beating back the resurgent virus, with shots now available to all those over the age of 12.

Channel 12 reported that during a cabinet meeting on Wednesday night, when the government approved a tightening of restrictions on gatherings as a way to curb the virus spread, ministers rallied together in favor of vaccinations in schools while assailing Shasha-Biton for her objections to the scheme.

During the cabinet meeting, Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli noted that other vaccinations, such as tetanus or papillomavirus, are also delivered in schools.

“I don’t understand the pedagogic claims,” Horowitz said, according to the report, which did not cite its sources.

A health worker takes test samples from children in Jerusalem on August 11, 2021 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Shasha-Biton responded that she has no objection to vaccinating children at schools, but not during study hours.

“So what’s the point in that?” Horowitz shot back. “When are they there? During studies. What is the point of vaccinating afterward?”

Science and Technology Minister Orit Farkash-Hacohen then suggested administering vaccines at the end of the day when parents come to collect their children, but Shasha-Biton objected that this could lead to tensions, due to the differences of public opinion on COVID-19 and vaccinations.

“A school should be protected space, sensitive and educational, and I don’t want to bring the whole discourse around the coronavirus into the school,” Shasha-Biton said. “Let [the children] have a bit of quiet.”

Last month, Shasha-Biton was rebuked by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett for feuding with health officials, and as chairwoman of the Knesset’s Coronavirus Committee during the last government, she struck down several virus restrictions passed by the cabinet.

The Education Ministry’s determination to keep COVID-19 vaccines out of schools has reportedly extended to a government plan that aims to conduct serological tests on over 1.5 million pupils, to determine how many have virus antibodies, allowing those students to obtain quarantine exemptions and remain in the classroom, even after exposure to a known carrier.

A Magen David Adom worker takes blood for a serological test for COVID-19 from a child in the ultra-Orthodox town of Kiryat Ye’arim (Telz-Stone), outside Jerusalem, on August 9, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The ministry is taking steps to make it more difficult for schools in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak to carry out the serological testing, Channel 12 reported on Wednesday.

There were 50,000 tests prepared for students, and written permission from parents received by the city. The ultra-Orthodox school system already opened at the beginning of this week.

However, the ministry reportedly told the municipality that serological testing will not be permitted to take place during school hours and can only be carried out in the presence of a parent, greatly reducing the chances that they would be done.

With the opening of the academic year just over two weeks away, the government has approved a plan on how to operate schools during the pandemic that will rely on extensive virus testing of pupils, in order to rapidly spot those who are infected and quarantine them and prevent them from passing on the virus to others.

However, September will also see the High Holidays, when schools are closed. With just nine scheduled study days scattered throughout the month, some have suggested delaying the school year until October, which would also give more time to clamp down on the wave of infections.

Stuart Winer contributed to this report.

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