The Health Ministry has reportedly decided that Israel will not begin offering fourth doses of the COVID-19 vaccine starting on Sunday as planned for Israelis over 60 and others at risk.
The decision was made at a meeting held by the ministry Thursday evening, Channel 13 news reported.
Nachman Ash, the ministry’s director-general, has yet to approve the campaign and has been examining data from Britain indicating the Omicron variant of the coronavirus causes less severe illness than the Delta strain, the report noted.
Preliminary data suggest that people with Omicron are between 50 and 70 percent less likely to need hospitalization than those with the Delta strain, Britain’s public health agency said Thursday.
The United Kingdom Health Security Agency findings add to emerging evidence that Omicron produces milder illness than other variants — but also spreads faster and better evades vaccines.
If more such data accumulates, Channel 13 reported, Ash may not back the government advisory panel’s recommendation from Tuesday night to offer the additional booster shots at this stage to medical personnel, over 60s, and at-risk groups, and instead send the matter back for further deliberation.
Israel was set to become the first country in the world to roll out a fourth dose for certain groups.
A separate report from the Kan public broadcaster said Ash will likely make a decision on whether to approve the fourth vaccine doses by the middle of next week.
Kan said Prime Minister Naftali Bennett wants to start administering the additional booster shots as soon as possible, but acknowledges Ash has final say on the matter.
Bennett on Tuesday night had welcomed the expert panel’s recommendation and ordered that officials prepare the campaign to distribute the vaccines.
Ash’s boss, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, said Wednesday that those eligible for a fourth shot would be able to get it as soon as Sunday without needing an appointment.
The experts, members of a government body called the Pandemic Treatment Staff, recommended that at-risk groups get the fourth dose after waiting at least four months since the third dose. But Channel 12 quoted a senior health official Thursday as saying that there had been political pressure on the body to approve the decision.
“Obviously there is pressure. There absolutely is.” the senior official claimed, according to the network. “When the boss decides that ‘A’ and not ‘B’ should be done, then there is a question as to whether one wants to present a position that goes against one’s boss.”
Despite the data suggesting that Omicron may not be as dangerous as Delta, the government still fears a huge surge of coronavirus contagion in the coming weeks, several networks reported Thursday. Kan quoted a senior health official as saying there were “black weeks ahead” for the country, while Channel 13 said the Health Ministry is expecting hundreds of thousands of people to be required to enter quarantine.
According to the latest Health Ministry statistics released Thursday night, 1,420 new COVID cases were confirmed the previous day, the highest daily tally since October. The positivity rate also trended slightly upward, reaching 1.45%, compared to 1.24% a day earlier and 0.9% a week ago.
The reproductive rate, or “R” number, also continued its gradual rise Thursday, hitting 1.34, up from 1.02 in early December. The transmission rate is based on data from 10 days earlier and any value above 1 shows that the pandemic is growing.
In line with the UK data, however, serious cases and hospitalizations continue to remain low. As of Thursday evening, there were 9,930 active COVID cases in Israel, with 123 of them hospitalized, 81 in serious condition and 38 on ventilators.
It is unclear how many of the new cases are linked to the new Omicron variant. On Monday, the Health Ministry confirmed another 170 Omicron cases, bringing the known total to 341 overall. The ministry said at the time that another 807 infections were “highly suspected” to be Omicron cases, but it has not provided an update since.
Health experts continue to urge parents to vaccinate their children, and for adults and teens to receive booster doses to help curb the spread of Omicron. And some appear to be heeding the call, as 9,402 people received a first dose of the COVID vaccine on Wednesday, the highest one-day rate since late November.
So far, 13% of all 5- to 11-year-olds in Israel have received at least one dose of the COVID shot, a month after they first became eligible. By contrast, close to 62% of all 12- to 15-year-olds, who became eligible for the vaccine in July, have received at least one shot. Overall, close to 70% of all Israelis have received at least one dose of the vaccine, and 45% have received three doses.
Fears of Omicron led Israel to shut its borders to non-citizens and severely restrict Israeli travel overseas. As of Wednesday, Israelis were banned from traveling to dozens of countries, including the United States, UK, Canada, South Africa and France.
Ministers on Tuesday night voted to institute several new restrictions, including limiting occupancy at shopping malls, allowing entry to non-essential stores only for those with a “Green Pass.”
On Thursday, the ministerial coronavirus committee approved new guidelines for schools in high infection areas, ordering that classes in grades 7 to 12 with less than 70% of students vaccinated switch to remote learning formats. Younger grades will be allowed to continue in-person learning, but will attempt to reduce contact.
According to the rules, which must be approved by the Knesset Education Committee, students will temporarily be considered vaccinated even if they have had only a single dose.