Israel will reportedly expand its COVID vaccine booster program to all Israelis 12 years and older starting next month, significantly expanding a program that has already seen over 1 million people over the age of 50 or immunocompromised receive a third dose of the shot.
Early data from the booster shot campaign has reportedly shown promising results, with some health officials predicting that re-upping the vaccine across the population will tamp down on a major surge in infections wracking the country.
Health officials told Channel 12 news that a panel of experts and Health Ministry director Nachman Ash were likely to swiftly okay expanding the booster program to all Israelis who had been eligible for the first two doses.
They cited high levels of antibodies identified in elderly populations who have received the booster in addition to limited reported side effects.
US health authorities announced earlier Wednesday that they would begin making the booster shots available to all Americans on September 20. They cited studies showing a weakened immune response some eight months after receiving the second dose of the vaccine.
Israel last month became the first country in the world to begin offering booster shots to those over the age of 60 and last week expanded the eligibility to those over 50. According to Health Ministry data Wednesday, 1,166,624 Israelis have since received the third dose.
Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz said Wednesday that the government would be “moving forward with the decision to expand the [distribution of] the third dose in the coming days.”
Hebrew media reports indicated that a government-appointed panel of health experts would approve expanding third dose eligibility for those over 40 at a meeting on Thursday.
Horowitz said others in certain professions would likely also be offered booster doses.
“The plan is to expand the distribution also to those who come into close contact with a lot of people — police officers, teachers and other such groups,” he said.
Health officials told Channel 12 news they hoped an expanded vaccine drive would lead to a drop in serious COVID cases and allow Israel to avoid needing to lock down or expand restrictions during the upcoming holiday season. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Wednesday that a lockdown is a last-case scenario but that it will depend on whether the public follows the government’s health guidelines.
Health Ministry figures updated Wednesday evening showed 600 Israelis hospitalized in serious condition due to COVID-19, the highest figure since mid-March. The ministry said 103 patients were on ventilators.
Nearly 1,000 patients are currently hospitalized, crowding COVID wings, amid government promises to recruit thousands of more doctors and nurses and pump billions of shekels into the health system.
The death toll since the start of the pandemic climbed to 6,723 on Wednesday.
Also on Wednesday, the Kan public broadcaster reported that the IDF Home Front Command will begin administering serological tests to all children from ages 3-12 next week to prepare for the expected return to school on September 1.
The government has been administering serological tests in order to discover which children were infected and recovered from the coronavirus without knowing. Those who are found to have COVID antibodies will be granted a “Green Pass” — just like those who are recovered or vaccinated — and will be exempt from quarantine if someone in their class tests positive.
The program is seen as key to allowing schools to reopen despite children being unable to receive the vaccine.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz approved calling up 6,000 reservists to assist in the Home Front Command operation on Tuesday.
Serological tests in the Haredi community began earlier this month with the opening of ultra-Orthodox schools, although only about 25% of eligible students have been tested. Initial results indicate that about 20% of Haredi students who had not previously been confirmed to test positive were found to have antibodies, according to Channel 12.
After daily infection numbers dropped to barely more than a dozen in mid-June the country has experienced a surge in COVID-19 infection, driven by the highly contagious Delta variant, which has seen the daily caseload climb to over 7,000.
Health officials expect the numbers to climb even higher and have warned the government that, at current rates, during September the number of patients requiring hospital treatment will reach 5,000, half of whom will be in serious condition.