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Israel expands vaccination drive to anyone over the age of 16, starting Thursday

Cabinet to discuss extending lockdown at least until Sunday as infections remain stubbornly high; about schools, Edelstein hints that ‘parents have something to look forward to’

Israelis stand in line for COVID-19 vaccinations in Rehovot, central Israel on January 26, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
Israelis stand in line for COVID-19 vaccinations in Rehovot, central Israel on January 26, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

The Health Ministry on Wednesday ordered health providers to prepare to offer vaccines to the entire adult public starting Thursday, as infection levels remained high and the cabinet was set to decide whether to extend the nationwide tightened lockdown from Friday to Sunday.

Israel has led the world’s most rapid inoculation campaign, with over a third of the population getting at least one dose, but the rate has been slowing down in recent days.

Until now, vaccines were open to risk groups and anyone over 35, with the elderly first to be immunized, as well as teens aged 16-18. Now, anyone over the age of 16 will be able to get the shots. Kids under that age were excluded from vaccine trials and therefore cannot be inoculated until additional research is conducted.

The Health Ministry said Wednesday that 3,236,859 Israelis received their first vaccine shot, of whom 1,855,071 have also got the second dose.

A man receives a COVID-19 vaccine in Jerusalem, on February 2, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu said Tuesday that the country is aiming to vaccinate 90% of those over the age of 50 against COVID-19 within two weeks, as part of its race to offset fast-spreading mutations of the coronavirus.

The national vaccine drive has slowed down in recent days, with healthcare providers finding it increasingly difficult to get people to come to be vaccinated, and some locations with excess doses inviting any and all who want to get the shots to come in. At least one provider was forced to throw away expired doses, according to Monday reports.

Meanwhile, health officials pushed for the lockdown to be extended as four weeks of lockdown combined with the vaccination drive barely put a dent in the high infection rate.

The Health Ministry is concerned that a lifting of the lockdown on Friday will lead to a weekend of family and social gatherings at homes and a subsequent surge in cases, Channel 12 reported.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and health officials are reported to want to extend the ongoing lockdown until the beginning of next week, saying it would enable hundreds of thousands more people to be vaccinated against the virus before some restrictions are eased. His coalition partners in Blue and White are said to want some closure restrictions to be removed on Friday, among them the limit on traveling over a kilometer from one’s home.

People wearing face masks walk in the Jerusalem city center on January 31, 2020, with Israel under its third lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

An IDF Military Intelligence Directorate task force said Wednesday that the basic reproduction number, or R0 — the average number of people each virus carrier infects — has been steadily rising over the past few days and reached 0.99, a touch away from 1, the point beyond which the outbreak is worsening.

It said that was likely due to the more infectious UK variant, which accounts for the vast majority of new cases in Israel.

The task force pointed out that the high infection rates have failed to drop at all throughout the almost month-long lockdown.

The Health Ministry said Wednesday morning that 7,919 new cases had been confirmed the previous day, with 9.3 percent of tests coming back positive.

Total cases reached 663,665, including 73,707 active cases. Of them, 1,074 were in serious condition, including 371 in critical condition and 292 on ventilators. The death toll rose to 4,888.

Workers from Chevra Kadisha Tel Aviv prepare a body before a funeral at a morgue for people who died from COVID-19 at the cemetery in Holon, February 2, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussil/Flash90)

“The drop in morbidity has stopped,” lamented coronavirus czar Nachman Ash, speaking to the Kan public broadcaster, saying he will recommend a limited reopening on Sunday night, but adding that if too much is reopened, a fourth lockdown will be quickly needed.

Sharon Alroy-Preis, head of public health services at the Health Ministry, expressed a similar opinion in an interview with Army Radio, saying the lockdown “must be extended at least until Sunday.”

Health Ministry Director-General Chezy Levy told the Ynet news site that he will recommend extending the lockdown until Sunday, “and then we’ll see.” He added that any reopening would be “slow and gradual.”

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said keeping the lockdown intact over the weekend would allow more people to be vaccinated while the damage to the economy would be minimal.

But he told Army Radio that next week could see some form of reopening of the education system, giving few details.

“Parents have something to look forward to,” he said. “Exact details will be published by the Education Ministry . We have been sitting down with its staff for a long time.”

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