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Health minister suggests fourth vaccine dose amid rising fears of fifth COVID wave

Nitzan Horowitz urges parents to vaccinate children as campaign for ages 5-11 gets off to slow start; coronavirus czar says fresh round of infections already starting

Jerusalem, November 24, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Jerusalem, November 24, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz said Wednesday that Israelis may need to get a fourth COVID-19 vaccine dose at some point if cases climb again, as the country’s top coronavirus official warned that the country may already be seeing the start of a fifth infection wave.

“It’s not unreasonable [to think] we’ll need a fourth vaccine,” said Horowitz in an interview with Channel 12, after Health Ministry data indicated that 9 percent of the new cases diagnosed Tuesday had received the third booster dose.

Most concerns, however, have revolved not around triply-vaccinated adults, but children who have yet to be vaccinated. Israel began giving shots to kids as young as 5 this week, amid signs pointing to increasing infection rates among kids.

Some commentators have referred to the current rise in infections as the “children’s wave.”

Coronavirus czar Salman Zarka, who is spearheading the national response to the pandemic, said he believes Israel is already in a new wave of infections.

“We’re not in between waves, we’re at the start of a new wave,” Zarka told the Kan public broadcaster Wednesday.

“When we thought about the fifth wave, we didn’t think about an increase in cases like this one. We thought about a new variant imported from abroad, about what’s happening now in Europe,” Zarka said. “The increase now is too early and too fast. I don’t want to call it the fifth wave, or a new wave at all.”

There were 605 new infections on Tuesday, around 76% of which were unvaccinated people. It wasn’t clear if the 9% of people who were infected after receiving a booster shot caught the disease after the two weeks needed for the dose to fully take effect.

Horowitz said he doesn’t think Israel is entering a new wave of infection, despite the rising number of cases.

“If we are entering a fifth wave, our strategy is to vaccinate as many people as possible and live alongside COVID,” he said.

Channel 12 reported that the campaign to vaccinate children was off to a slow start, with just four percent of parents setting up appointments.

Ilana Gans, chief of staff of the public health services department at the Health Ministry, said Wednesday that around 30,000 young children in Israel are booked in to receive coronavirus vaccines. Some 1 million children are eligible for the shots.

“There’s no reason to wait with the children’s vaccination. The virus doesn’t wait. It can be dangerous to children,” Horowitz said, citing the virus’s acute symptoms and potential long-term effects, including concentration problems, anxiety and breathing difficulties.

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz speaks during a press conference on November 9, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Surveys have found widespread hesitancy toward vaccinating children in Israel, but Horowitz said that thousands were in line for the shot and there were “good indications” about the number of children who will receive the inoculation.

Over 5.7 million Israelis have received two vaccine doses, and over 4 million have had a booster shot, out of a population of 9.2 million. Around 700,000 eligible adults remain unvaccinated.

Zarka told Kan that there’s a misconception in Israel that the danger is over, when “vaccination is the main tool” for tackling it.

“The pandemic is still here,” he warned. The million who didn’t get their booster yet “are not anti-vaxxers… maybe they falsely believe” that the danger is over, he said.

Officials from the Health Ministry warned lawmakers on Wednesday that there may be a need for new virus restrictions if cases cross the threshold of over 1,000 new infections diagnosed per day or infection rates are seen rising.

“If we pass the transmission rate of 1.2, we will have to use restrictions to reduce crowd sizes as a first stage, including in venues operating under the Green Pass, as these are events where more infections are seen,” Gans told the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee.

Health Ministry figures Wednesday showed that Israel’s transmission rate stood at 1.08, based on data from 10 days earlier.

A child gets the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine in Jerusalem on November 23, 2021 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Also known as the “R-number,” the figure represents the number of people each confirmed patient infects, on average. Any number over 1 signifies that case numbers are rising. The infection rate had been below 1 for two months before hitting that threshold several days ago.

At a meeting of the coronavirus cabinet Tuesday, the first in some two months, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett reportedly warned of possible restrictions to stem COVID-19 infections during the upcoming Hanukkah holiday.

As of Wednesday evening, there were 6,606 active cases, including 122 people in serious condition. There have been 14 fatalities in the past week, bringing the toll since the start of the pandemic to 8,180.

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