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Herd immunity by Seder night? Trailblazing Israel is vaccinating faster than UK

After just 3 days, vaccination newbie has overtaken the coverage in Britain, percentage-wise, though that country got started 2 weeks earlier

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

An Israeli citizen receives a COVID-19 vaccine, at a Meuhedet vaccination center in Jerusalem, on December 21, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
An Israeli citizen receives a COVID-19 vaccine, at a Meuhedet vaccination center in Jerusalem, on December 21, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Israel’s vaccination drive is off to a flying start, getting shots to the population much faster than the United Kingdom, which was the first Western country to ask citizens to roll up their sleeves.

Israel gave 71,876 shots by the end of Tuesday, according to the Health Ministry, which is some 0.77 percent of the population.

The UK has only just hit 500,000 vaccinations, or 0.74% of the population, which means that it took doctors and nurses there around two weeks to reach the same level of coverage that Israel has managed since Sunday.

Oxford University researchers working with Our World In Data crunched the numbers, and published a graph that placed Israel in second place in the world’s vaccination rankings.

The stats — which account only for the first of two shots needed for protection — come as Israel’s healthcare community juggles mixed emotions related to the pandemic. There is concern about rising infection levels, which seem poised to trigger another lockdown, alongside a wave of optimism about vaccination.

Doctors and nurses wearing protective gear work at the coronavirus ward of Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, on December 17, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“The eve of Passover is almost three and a half months from now and I have no doubt that we will be able to celebrate the Seder with our families because of the vaccine,” said Jonathan Halevy, president of of Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center, in a press briefing this week.

Jonathan Halevy, Director General of Shaare Zedek Hospital. (Channel 10 TV screenshot)

“Before mid-April a critical mass of the Israeli population will be vaccinated, which will lead to herd immunity,” he predicted.

Last Passover was spend under strict lockdown and people were banned from celebrating with families, in what many Israelis considered a psychological low point of the pandemic.

After Britain and Israel comes the United States, which started vaccinating on Monday and has injected 0.19% of the population.

Russia has injected around 0.14%. The only other two countries to make the ranking, China and Canada, have given shots to 0.07% and 0.06% of their populations, respectively.

Israel achieved its strong start despite the fact that nurses aren’t yet working at full throttle. So far, they have given 30,000 shots, an average of 10,000 per day, but in the next week they hope to reach the target of 60,000 shots a day.

“We are starting very well, and managed 2,000 shots in just 24 hours in two Jerusalem clinics,” a spokeswoman for the Clalit healthcare provider told The Times of Israel on Wednesday. “Given that we will be opening many more facilities in the coming days, this is very promising.”

Eran Segal (courtesy of Eran Segal)

Coronavirus statistics expert Eran Segal was optimistic.

“We have just started and we are already second in the world,” he noted in a tweet, stating that with Israel’s at-risk group aged 60-plus numbering about 1.4 million, they could all receive their first shots within three weeks.

But while Israel is thought to have shots in the country — or en route soon — for the elderly and at-risk, as well as for healthcare workers and the immunocompromised, there are still question marks surrounding supply.

Israel is believed to have secured more than enough vaccines for the entire population, but delivery schedules are uncertain, which is one of several factors that leads some experts to caution that the vaccine rollout will be a slow process. Leading epidemiologist Michael Edelstein insisted in a recent Times of Israel interview that even a full year after the first COVID-19 vaccinations arrive in Israel, “nowhere near” all citizens will have immunity.

But others say they expect companies to deliver quickly, and that with vaccination now underway, Israelis could be able to ditch masks and ease social distancing restrictions within a few months. Halevy said this will hinge on whether vaccinated people, who are highly unlikely to contract the disease, can spread it. He expects confirmation soon that they can’t, and said that if it’s forthcoming, a big move toward normalcy is on the horizon.

“The pessimists among us are talking about 2022,” he said. “I am not that pessimistic and my prediction is that during the first half of 2021 we could ease the social distancing rules.”

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