Health Ministry Director-General Nachman Ash on Thursday told health management organizations to start giving a third COVID-19 vaccine shot to elderly Israelis from the beginning of next week.
Ash told the HMOs the shots should be given to those aged 60 and older.
His order came hours after Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met with top health officials to review an expert panel’s recommendations that older Israelis receive a third shot.
Israel is among the first in the world to offer a third dose of a coronavirus vaccine — Hungary has also said it would begin rolling out booster shots beginning Sunday, joining Turkey, which adopted the measure earlier this month. The American Food and Drug Administration has yet to approve third doses.
Israel’s decision came amid a struggle to contain a recent wave of coronavirus infections that has seen case numbers rocket from just dozens a day a month ago, to a daily caseload of over 2,000 this week.
With serious cases also on the rise, health officials had been weighing a booster shot for the elderly in order to minimize illness.
“These recommendations, by the committee of experts, are substantial,” Bennett said after meeting with Ash and Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, according to a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office.
“Our strategy is clear: to safeguard life, and to safeguard daily routines in the State of Israel,” Bennett said in the statement, hours after the reintroduction of the Green Pass system granting access to large events only to those who are vaccinated, recovered or able to present a recent negative virus test.
The prime minister also repeated his calls for all those eligible for vaccinations to go out and get the shots.
The vote by the expert panel on Wednesday to recommend a third dose was not unanimous, according to Hebrew media, but a majority was in favor against the backdrop of the rising number of seriously ill patients in recent weeks.
Health Ministry figures on Thursday showed there were 2,165 new COVID-19 cases diagnosed the day before, the third day in a row that the number was above 2,000, a daily caseload not seen since March.
There were 159 patients in serious condition, an increase of eight since midnight.
A military task force advising the government on coronavirus policy warned Thursday that at the current rate, the number of serious cases will multiply in the coming weeks and could overwhelm hospitals.
In its daily report, the task force said that the number of seriously ill patients “clearly and effectively demonstrates the outbreak of the disease in the country.”
The current transmission rates show that the number of infected people will double every 7-10 days, it said.
“Without additional action and broad vaccination by the public, the number of confirmed cases and the number of seriously ill patients is expected to increase in a manner that is likely to lead, within weeks, to strain on community clinics and hospitals,” the report said.
So far the national vaccination drive, which is open to all those age 12 and up, has inoculated about 55 percent of the population. According to the task force, there are a million eligible Israelis who have not yet received the shots. Of them, 234,000 are aged over 50.
The surge in virus cases has been attributed to travelers returning from abroad who were infected with new strains of COVID-19, notably the Delta variant, but did not properly quarantine after arriving in the country.
At a meeting of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee on Thursday, lawmakers were told that the current policy of banning Israelis from visiting countries with high infection rates is only partially successful at preventing further spread of the virus.
Health Ministry director of public health Sharon Alroy-Preis told the committee that “using tweezers to choose which country is a danger is no longer the correct method.”
Alroy-Preis said that although the system, which saw the government build a list of “red countries” that Israelis were prohibited from visiting, did help reduce morbidity, the current situation demands a change as infection rates are rising all over the world “at a worrying rate.”
She said 150-200 infected people were entering the country every day and that despite mandatory virus testing at the airport, some only find out they have COVID-19 days later when they have already been in contact with others.
Alroy-Preis said the Health Ministry is considering other systems to address the problem, to “find a model that will allow travel and living alongside the coronavirus but will reduce morbidity.”