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Before, we lacked vaccines; now we lack people to vaccinate

Israel’s vaccine drive slowing, with clinics struggling to bring people in

Some HMOs now offering inoculations to all to avoid wasting vials; one said to throw out 1,000 doses; lockdown may be extended again; unemployment rises to 16.7%

A woman receives a COVID-19 vaccine injection, at a vaccination center in Jerusalem, on January 28, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
A woman receives a COVID-19 vaccine injection, at a vaccination center in Jerusalem, on January 28, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Israel’s vaccination drive appears to be slowing down, with healthcare providers finding it increasingly difficult to get people to come to be vaccinated, and at least one provider was forced to throw away expired doses, according to Monday reports.

The Clalit health provider discarded around 1,000 expired doses in recent days, after not enough people came in to receive the shots, Channel 12 reported. The Pfizer vaccine being used in Israel expires quickly after being removed from deep freeze.

Both Clalit and Meuhedet have in recent days sent out messages to all clients in various areas with excess doses to come in to be vaccinated — including people outside the Health Ministry-approved age groups (currently over 35s and ages 16-18).

The Health Ministry said Monday evening that 87,000 people had been vaccinated since midnight, down from a daily rate of around 150,000 a few weeks ago.

The drop in public enthusiasm for the now plentiful stocks of vaccine comes as many countries, European nations among them, struggle to secure supplies for their populations.

An official from Clalit told Channel 12, “In the past, we lacked vaccines, now we’re lacking people to vaccinate.”

Kalanit Kay, who manages the vaccine campaign for Clalit, told the network, “In recent days, we’ve seen a slowdown in vaccinations, in the number of people who are coming in to get their first dose.”

“We sent out messages on Facebook and text messages, for everyone who lives in the area, everyone who thinks they want a vaccine, to come early and get vaccinated,” she said. The calls prompted many more young people to come in for their first dose, the report said.

Another Clalit official told Channel 12, “Unfortunately, we’re really not seeing the number of people we used to see. We’ve seen a dramatic decline in the rate of vaccinations.”

The vaccination campaign is expected to be opened to all ages nationwide this week or next week, the Ynet news site reported.

The rate of vaccinations for over 60s has leveled off because many people in that age group have already been vaccinated.

Police officers seen during clashes with ultra-Orthodox men over coronavirus lockdown restrictions, Jerusalem, January 26, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Apparently seeking to boost public cooperation with the inoculation drive, one mayor warned Monday that he would deny city services to residents who do not vaccinate.

Lod Mayor Yair Revivo(Yossi Zeliger/FLASH90)

Lod Mayor Yair Revivo said in a Facebook livestream that he would seek “sanctions” against those who do not get shots, including a ban from shopping and attendance at education institutions.

Revivo’s plan is in all likelihood illegal.

A total of 3.1 million Israelis have received their first dose and 1.8 million have received the second dose. The vaccination rate remains much lower among Israel’s Arab and ultra-Orthodox communities than the rest of the population, Channel 12 said.

The Health Ministry on Monday reported some data on mostly minor side effects from the second dose of the vaccine.

The most common side effect was “general weakness,” which affected people at a rate of 458 per 1 million. The next most common side effects were headaches, high temperature, muscle pain and joint pain. There were no serious or life-threatening side effects reported.

Israel so far leads the world by far in its vaccination campaign per capita.

Despite the relatively high number of vaccinations in the Israeli population and weeks of lockdown, the virus continues to run rampant, largely due to more contagious variants, and the country remains under lockdown.

Ministers voted in the early hours of Monday morning to extend the nationwide closure, now in its fourth week, until Friday morning at 7 a.m., and to keep Ben Gurion Airport closed until Sunday.

El Al airlines, Israel’s national carrier, said Monday that it had canceled all passenger flights until Saturday due to the government’s order to close the airport. Cargo flights and flights carrying vaccines will continue as usual. The company is trying to organize a “rescue” flight to bring Israeli citizens stranded in New York home.

Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch (Likud) signaled Monday that the government may extend the lockdown beyond its Friday deadline.

“If we don’t see a drop in serious cases, it’s possible we’ll ask to extend the lockdown beyond Friday,” Kisch told Channel 13.

Ministers are to meet on Wednesday afternoon at 2 p.m. to discuss the lockdown terms. Netanyahu is seeking to extend the closure beyond Friday, according to Channel 13. However, Blue and White is likely to strongly oppose any such extension.

The cabinet meeting saw heated arguments between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who supported extending the lockdown, and Blue and White’s Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who wanted to begin easing the rules on Thursday. Health Ministry officials also opposed Gantz, and wanted a longer lockdown.

According to Channel 12 News, at one point, the arguments between the two devolved into a shouting match, with Health Minister Yuli Edelstein backing Netanyahu against Gantz, as they haggled over days.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz attend a graduation ceremony for new Air Force pilots at the Hatzerim air base near Beersheba, June 25, 2020. (Ariel Schalit/ Pool/AFP)

One person who witnessed the fight described it to Channel 12 as “a Turkish bazaar.” Another professional who took part in the meeting said it appeared that both sides were now chiefly concerned with political considerations, as the country heads to an election on March 23.

“Throughout the entire crisis, there’s not been a cabinet meeting like it,” the official said. “What we saw yesterday was a sign of where things are headed in the next two months. It’s going to be awful.”

Medical workers test Israelis at a drive-through coronavirus testing site in Safed on February 1, 2021. (David Cohen/ Flash90)

Sunday night’s lockdown discussions came after two funerals attended by thousands of ultra-Orthodox in Jerusalem in violation of lockdown restriction sparked fresh outrage among politicians, the public, and business owners, who have seen their livelihoods decimated by the lockdowns. The rule violations have been seen throughout the country and across all communities, they have been particularly prevalent among the Haredi public.

Sunday also saw the Knesset pass a bill stepping up enforcement of the lockdown by doubling fines for violators. Gantz and his party had demanded the measure pass before holding the meeting on the lockdown extension, putting them at odds with Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox allies in the ruling coalition.

Shaare Zedek hospital team members wearing safety gear as they work in the coronavirus ward on January 27 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Channel 13 said Monday that Netanyahu was reviewing a plan to gradually ease the closure. The proposal foresees all schools opening in low-infection areas, but only kindergartens and 11th and 12th grades opening in virus hotspots.

In the first stage, some commercial services will be allowed to resume and, possibly, street-front stores. Malls will remain closed. The government will likely green-light a pilot program allowing cultural events for vaccinated people.

Sharon Alroy-Preis, a top health official, said Monday that Israel will “cautiously” reopen the economy and schools after the lockdown ends.

She told Channel 12 that schools in high-infection areas will remain closed in the first stages of reopening and that infections among children remain high, likely due to the British variant.

A group of medical professionals called the Public Emergency Council for the Coronavirus Crisis, which was set up in December and mainly advocates against lockdowns, said Monday that the lockdown was ineffective and damaging, especially to children.

“We demand considering a new path — opening the education system immediately with everything required, while keeping proper behavior guidelines,” the group said.

Israel’s Pediatrics Association on Monday called for a gradual opening of schools, starting with the younger grades.

An Israeli man receives a COVID-19 vaccine, at a Maccabi Health Services vaccination center at the Givatayim mall, outside of Tel Aviv, January 20, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Much of the high infection rate has been ascribed to the growing prevalence of highly infectious virus variants in Israel — particularly the UK strain, but with the South African mutation also gaining ground.

Coronavirus czar Nachman Ash, in a briefing with reporters, said 80 cases of the South African variant have been found in Israel. “We’re working to locate every case,” he said.

Israeli health officials have expressed concern that the South African variant may be more resistant to the current coronavirus vaccines.

“As for the British mutation, we find it to be present in 70 percent of positive tests,” he said.

According to data released by a military task force on Monday, Israel’s transmission rate has started to rise again after falling for a number of weeks. The basic reproduction number, or R, which is the number of new cases stemming from each coronavirus infection, or the number of people who caught the virus from each infected person, stood at 0.96, having fallen to 0.9 a week earlier.

However, striking a positive note, the report said there was a reduction in the number of new cases and serious patients over the age of 60, a fall it said could be attributed to the widespread vaccination campaign, which kicked off with that age group.

On the economic front, the Central Bureau of Statistics said Monday that unemployment rates shot up to 16.7% in the first two weeks of January as the nationwide lockdown was introduced.

The figure amounted to 680,000 unemployed, the vast majority of whom (504,000) were placed on unpaid leave.

In late December, the unemployment rate stood at 13.7%, or some 566,000 jobless.

Israel’s three lockdowns have caused severe damage to the economy, especially for small businesses, the self-employed, and the culture and entertainment industries.

The Health Ministry said Monday evening that another 5,815 virus cases were recorded since midnight, bringing the number of active cases to 73,387.

There were 1,139 people in serious condition and the death toll rose to 4,813.

The Health Ministry said Monday that around a third of all reported COVID-19 deaths in Israel were in January alone, making it the deadliest month by far since the start of the pandemic.

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