Israel kicks off its coronavirus vaccination drive on Saturday evening with reports suggesting the Jewish state could be the first country in the world to vaccinate its at-risk populations.
The first Israeli to receive the vaccine will be Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, followed by Health Minister Yuli Edelstein. They will be inoculated Saturday evening at Sheba Medical Center near Tel Aviv. Netanyahu is 71 and Edelstein 62.
The event, which will be broadcast live, is aimed at “encouraging the Israeli public to get the vaccine,” the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement, adding that Netanyahu will thus become one of the first world leaders to get the vaccine. US Vice President Mike Pence and Congresspeople began receiving the vaccination on Friday.
President Reuven Rivlin will receive the vaccination Sunday when the country starts vaccinating health workers. From Monday, elderly Israelis and at-risk populations can receive a vaccine at Health maintenance organizations (HMOs) with a doctor’s appointment.
Both Channel 12 and 13 reported that Israel was likely to be one of the first countries in the world, if not the first, to complete the vaccination of its at-risk populations.
This was due to Israel’s relatively small population, compared to the high ratio of vaccines per-capita it has already received and will soon receive, the reports said.
“Once Israel vaccinates its medical workers and at-risk population then it can begin to treat COVID like the flu with a PR problem,” said Channel 12 commentator Dana Weiss.
Edelstein told Channel 12 that the pace of vaccinations would depend on demand from the public, but estimated that Israel could largely complete giving the first round of vaccinations to the at-risk “in about two weeks.”
They would then need to return for a second shot after 21 days, meaning Israel could completely vaccinate its at-risk populations by the end of January. However, officially, Israel is aiming to complete the at-risk drive by March, Channel 12 said, which would allow for logistical complications and public reluctance.
“If the vaccination of the at-risk population goes ahead at a good pace, we won’t wait until the very last one is vaccinated before opening it up to the general population,” Edelstein said.
However, this also depended on the willingness of the public to take the vaccination.
A poll published Friday indicated that 63% of Israelis plan to get vaccinated for the coronavirus, with numbers highest among senior citizens.
The poll in the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper found that 24% plan to vaccinate immediately and 39% will ”probably get vaccinated, but will wait a little bit.”
Among those above the age of 65, 50% said they plan to vaccinate immediately and 32% said they’ll “probably get vaccinated, but will wait a little bit.”
Edelstein told Channel 12 on Friday that he hoped that as more prominent people got vaccinated, public confidence in the vaccine would grow.
“I’m not concerned (about taking the vaccine,), it has been examined by all necessary agencies. I wouldn’t ask someone to do something that I am not willing to do myself,” he said.
Edelstein said the current plan was for HMO’s to vaccinate some 60,000 people per day, but he said they were prepared to do even more if there was a demand, meaning two million Israelis could be vaccinated by the end of January.
“We want to reach millions but it depends on the willingness of the public,” he said pleading with the public not to be a “no show” for appointments.
Sunday will see vaccinations given to hospital workers, followed by employees of HMOs, private health clinics, and dental offices; medical and nursing students taking part in clinical rounds; members of Magen David Adom and other ambulance services; and residents and caregivers at senior living homes.
HMOs on Thursday afternoon started notifying Israelis aged over 60 and at-risk populations that they can book appointments to get vaccinated starting Monday, a day after the country starts administering coronavirus shots to front-line health workers.
Members of the Maccabi and Meuhedet HMOs could reserve appointments starting Thursday. Clalit will open reservations on Friday and Leumit will do so Sunday.
Every patient will have two appointments scheduled, 21 days apart, and will be considered vaccinated only after receiving the second dose.
Maccabi, Meuhedet and Clalit will begin vaccinations for the public on Monday, two days ahead of the initial schedule. Leumit will stick to Wednesday as previously planned.
Maccabi’s website crashed Thursday shortly after reservations were opened to the public, underlining the high demand by at-risk Israelis.
According to the Ynet news site, partners of those at risk can also be vaccinated, even if they themselves do not meet any of the requirements.
Certain members of the general public will start getting vaccinated on Monday or Wednesday, including those in risk groups and anyone over 60.
Next will be Israelis working in jobs with a high risk of exposure to the virus, such as teachers, social workers, first responders, and prison staff (prisoners will also get priority); and Israel Defense Forces soldiers and other security personnel.
Last will come the rest of the population, with a timeline depending on how many doses arrive in Israel and the level of demand by the priority groups.
Along with some four million doses from Pfizer expected to arrive by the end of the month, Channel 12 said Wednesday that another four million were expected to come by the end of March for a total of eight million doses — enough to vaccinate four million people. Israel’s population is about 9.25 million.
The network said Moderna’s vaccine, which could receive emergency approval from US regulators within days, as well as a vaccine being produced by AstraZeneca, are not expected to arrive in Israel earlier than April.
The vaccine drive comes as the government was said to be mulling new restrictions on the public, given rising infection numbers.
Israel is contending with a marked rise in new COVID-19 cases, with infections surging to almost 3,000 on Tuesday and Wednesday, the highest caseloads in over two months.
The government-set benchmark for reimposing restrictions is an average of 2,500 daily cases over an entire week or a basic reproduction number of over 1.32. That figure was at 1.27 last week, according to the Health Ministry. Any value over one means the virus infection rate is increasing.