Israel’s vaccination drive likely to be briefly halted next week

Expected shortage in vaccines to slow process, with one leading health provider to run out of doses for over 60s; 1.2 million Israelis have received first dose

Reina Abitbul, 92, receives a Covid-19 vaccine, at the Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem, on January 3, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Reina Abitbul, 92, receives a Covid-19 vaccine, at the Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem, on January 3, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel will slow down or even completely stop vaccinating people next week with the first dose of the Pfizer inoculation due to a shortage of vaccines that will take several weeks to resolve, Hebrew-language media reported late Sunday.

The reports came as Health Minister Yuli Edelstein on Monday morning said 1,224,000 Israelis have received the first dose of the shot, some 12 percent of the country’s population.

The pause in the vaccination drive won’t affect the administration of the second dose of the vaccine to the 1.2 million who received the first shot. But the healthcare system may stop scheduling appointments for the first dose of the vaccine as a stopgap measure, until further deliveries of the vaccine arrive in Israel, the reports said.

Channel 12 said new appointments are expected to be slowed down significantly, with hospitals to stop giving the shots altogether, while the Kan public broadcaster reported that, from Saturday, there will be no new appointments at all. Kan said that, combined, all four health providers have only 170,000 remaining free appointments. Israel has been vaccinating more than 100,000 people every day.

Israel is negotiating with Pfizer to move up its vaccine deliveries from February to sometime this month.

Channel 12 reported on Sunday that Israel’s highly publicized success in its vaccine campaign has hurt its negotiations with Pfizer. Other countries, seeing Israel’s high rate of vaccination, have complained to Pfizer that Israel has received too many doses, putting pressure on the company to deliver more shots elsewhere, Channel 12 reported, citing sources in the Health Ministry.

The network said Sunday the Meuhedet health provider does not have enough doses to cover over 60s. Meuhedet said 40 percent of appointments in the Arab community were canceled, causing chaos in the distribution process and wasting shots.

Doses are removed from refrigeration before they are administered, and expire quickly, so when a patient does not show up the shots can go to waste.

Meuhedet said over 60s who have not made an appointment for this month will need to wait until February. The healthcare provider said people who received the first shot will not need to wait longer than planned for the second, follow-up dose.

An Israeli woman receives a COVID-19 inoculation at a vaccination center operated by the Tel Aviv Municipality with Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, December 31, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Israel’s other health providers have enough doses left for their clients who are over 60, the report said.

Young Israelis line up for surplus doses

Surplus doses are sometimes administered to younger people ahead of schedule. Channel 12 said Sunday that 100,000 people between 20 and 40 have been vaccinated, including “many” who are not medical workers or otherwise at risk.

The network reported long lines at vaccination distribution locations on Sunday night, including in Jerusalem, as young Israelis looked to receive surplus doses at the end of the day.

Israel is leading the world per capita in its vaccination campaign, but cases are soaring amid a third national lockdown that Health Minister Edelstein said Sunday will likely be made more stringent.

Israel’s hospitals are under immense strain as infections surge, with many medical centers electing to cancel between 10% and 40% of non-urgent surgeries, and convert operating rooms into makeshift coronavirus wards, the Kan public broadcaster reported.

The report said the shortage of manpower and beds at hospitals is the worst seen since the beginning of the pandemic.

“The third wave is more severe than the second,” the report said, citing the managers of the Hadassah and Rambam hospitals. “The numbers of serious patients are higher. We are forced to open more coronavirus wards.”

The Health Ministry is expecting the situation to get even worse.

The ministry said earlier Sunday that 30 confirmed cases of the more infectious British mutated strain have been identified so far in the country, including seven on Sunday. The ministry said the cases were not linked to arrivals from abroad, indicating community spread.

Edelstein said on Sunday that with virus infection numbers still rising despite a partial lockdown begun last week, he will now push for a total closure of the country.

During a visit to a vaccination center in the northern city of Nazareth, Edelstein warned that since current infection numbers are skyrocketing, “there is no avoiding a full-blown lockdown, including closing schools.”

Last week Israel began its third national lockdown since the start of the virus outbreak, but the closure has been slammed as ineffective and full of holes, including schools and workplaces remaining largely open and a lack of enforcement.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein receives a coronavirus vaccine at Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan on December 19, 2020. (Amir Cohen/Pool/AFP)

“We’re going through a very severe outbreak and are probably in a more dire situation than we were in at the beginning of September,” Edelstein said, referring to the period before Israel began its second lockdown.

“We will demand a full-blown lockdown for two weeks,” he said. “We need to deal one strong blow to morbidity rates and embark on a new path together.”

On Monday morning the Health Ministry said there were 49,643 active cases in the country, with 5,135 new coronavirus cases confirmed the previous day. The death toll stood at 3,416. Last week daily cases broke through the 6,000 mark.

According to the ministry, 6.6% of tests returned positive on Sunday, the highest rate in months.

Nonetheless, Edelstein expressed optimism about the country’s mass vaccination campaign, which has so far given the first of a two-shot inoculation to over one million of Israel’s nine million citizens.

“It is hard to believe, but we are ten percent of all those who have been inoculated in the world,” he said, estimating that “by the end of March, the beginning of April, most people who want to get vaccinated will be able to get vaccinated and then we will be able have a broad opening of the economy and culture.”

He also rejected the idea of delaying giving the second round of injections to those who have had the first in order to use dwindling supplies to enable more people to get the first shot, a policy under consideration in Britain. The first shot of the Pfizer vaccine being used offers about 50 percent protection against the virus, while the second boost defenses to over 90%.

“We won’t do a partial job,” he said and noted that so far the vaccinations have focused on those most at risk, namely medical workers, those over 60, and those with compromised health.

“The unequivocal position of the health care system is two shots,” he said. “Anyone who got an appointment for the second shot will go and get it.”

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