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Health Ministry director denies there’s a shortage of COVID vaccines

Following report that health providers don’t have enough shots, Chezy Levy, Netanyahu pledge millions of doses of Pfizer vaccine will soon arrive

Estelle Bukatman, head of Pharmacy Services at Shaare Zedek Medical Center, holds coronavirus vaccine doses as they arrive in Jerusalem, on December 19, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Estelle Bukatman, head of Pharmacy Services at Shaare Zedek Medical Center, holds coronavirus vaccine doses as they arrive in Jerusalem, on December 19, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Times of Israel liveblogged Saturday’s events as they unfolded.

Health Ministry says national COVID vaccination drive now underway

The Health Ministry announces the official launch of Israel’s national COVID-19 vaccination campaign.

“The campaign will begin in stages and gradually,” the ministry says in a statement.

The statement comes shortly before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be the first Israeli to receive Pfizer’s vaccine.

The Health Ministry says has it currently has hundreds of thousands of doses and says millions more are set to arrive soon.

UK’s Johnson orders new restrictions to slow more infectious virus strain

LONDON — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announces a “stay at home” order for London and southeast England to slow a new coronavirus strain that is significantly more infectious.

The new strain of the virus “does appear to be passed on significantly more easily,” Johnson says at a televised briefing. He orders new restrictions for London and south-eastern England from tomorrow, saying that under the new “tier four” rules, “residents in those areas must stay at home” at least until December 30.

— AFP

Health Ministry confirms new quarantine mandate for all travelers

The Health Ministry says that it will now define all foreign countries as “red” states with high infection rates, requiring any traveler coming to Israel to quarantine upon arrival.

A statement from the ministry says mandatory quarantine for Israelis coming from “green” states won’t begin until December 26.

Under the order, travelers will have to quarantine for 14 days, or for 10 days if they pass two coronavirus tests within nine days of their return without a positive result.

No progress in talks between Likud, Blue and White to avert elections — TV

The Likud and Blue and White parties failed to make progress over the weekend on a deal to avert new elections, with both sides pessimistic a deal can be reached, Channel 12 news reports.

The network says the main point of contention is the demand by Prime Minister Netanyahu, who faces corruption charges in three graft cases, that Likud be given more involvement in the appointment of top legal and judicial officials.

The parties must reach an agreement by Tuesday night, or the Knesset will automatically dissolve due to the lack of state budget.

A failure to pass a budget is the lone visible loophole in the rotation agreement that would let Netanyahu avoid having to give up the premiership to Blue and White leader Benny Gantz in November 2021. As such, Likud has been holding up the budget for months in an effort to renegotiate a more favorable coalition agreement that would see Netanyahu’s one-and-half-year term extended at the expense of Gantz’s identical allotment of time as premier. Likud is also seeking to curb the influence of Blue and White Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn.

As vaccine drive kicks off, top health official urges all Israelis to get vaccinated

Chezy Levy, the director-general of the Health Ministry, calls on all Israelis to get vaccinated against COVID-19, as the country’s vaccination drive gets underway.

Levy tells Channel 12 news that he is “happy and excited” the campaign is beginning.

“We can vaccinate millions of Israelis,” he says, referring to supply deals Israel inked with vaccine developers.

He also warns Israel is headed toward new restrictions to curb a rise in infections, and maybe even a third lockdown.

Trump says cyberattack ‘under control,’ downplays Russian role

WASHINGTON — US President Donald Trump downplays a massive cyberattack on US government agencies, declaring it “under control” and undercutting the assessment by his own administration that Russia was to blame.

“I have been fully briefed and everything is well under control,” Trump tweets in his first public comments on the hack, adding that “Russia Russia Russia is the priority chant when anything happens” and suggesting that China “may” also be involved.

— AFP

Health Ministry reports 2,815 new virus infections on Friday; 3.7% of tests positive

The Health Ministry says 2,815 new coronavirus cases were confirmed yesterday, which along with another 1,064, brings the total number of infections since the pandemic began to 372,401.

The death toll rises to 3,070.

Of the 23,917 active cases, 445 people are in serious condition, including 109 on ventilators. Another 144 are in moderate condition and the rest have mild or no symptoms.

The ministry says 75,232 tests were performed yesterday, with 3.7 percent coming back positive. So far today, 39,637 tests have been conducted, of which 2.7% were positive. Testing rates typically drop on the weekend.

Netanyahu receives vaccine: ‘A small injection for man and a giant step for the health of us all’

Prime Minister Netanyahu hails the start of the national COVID-19 vaccination campaign as a “very great day” for Israel.

Speaking at Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, where he is becoming the first Israeli to receive the vaccine, he pledges millions of doses will arrive by the end of the month and urges all Israelis to be vaccinated.

“I asked to be first to be vaccinated, along with Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, to serve as a personal example and encourage you to get vaccinated,” he says before receiving the vaccine.

Netanyahu says that the return to life as we used to know it begins now. For all those who have been unable “to hug grandpa and grandma,” for all those whose businesses have been closed, “who haven’t been able to go to restaurants or the gym, or to watch soccer or basketball,” the vaccine drive means Israel can start “to reopen, to return to what it was… to normal life. It starts here.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is vaccinated against COVID-19, December 19, 2020 (GPO screenshot)

The doctor administering the vaccine shows off the vial holding the dose to the cameras before handing it to a nurse to be prepared.

He then shows off the vial and the syringe.

The process takes a few minutes, with lots of checking and rechecking, and the doctor then attempts to inject Netanyahu in his left arm. The prime minister, who is left-handed, redirects him to his right arm.

“A small injection for a man and a giant step for the health of us all,” Netanyahu says after receiving the vaccine. He wishes “every success” for the vaccination drive, and urges all Israelis to “go get vaccinated.”

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein is vaccinated after him.

Shas chief Deri urges Netanyahu, Gantz to quickly reach deal to avert elections

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri calls on Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz to swiftly reach an agreement to avert new elections, ahead of Tuesday night’s deadline to pass a budget or have the Knesset dissolve.

“Under absolutely no circumstances should elections be held at this time. We’re dealing with the coronavirus, morbidity is rising, further restrictions are on the way and there’s an urgent need to continue to look after the economy,” Deri tweets.

Deri heads the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, which is part of Netanyahu’s bloc of right-wing and religious factions.

Health Ministry director denies there’s a shortage of COVID vaccine doses

The director-general of the Health Ministry denies there is a shortage of coronavirus vaccines, after health providers reportedly said they already distributed all of the doses of Pfizer’s vaccine that they had received.

“There will be vaccines for all the Israeli people, the talk about a shortage isn’t right,” Chezy Levy is quoted saying by the Ynet news site.

In separate remarks to the Kan public broadcaster, Levy says millions of doses are on the way, echoing comments earlier this evening by Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Netanyahu feeling ‘terrific’ after receiving vaccine, predicts Israel could be first country to beat virus

After receiving a coronavirus vaccine, Prime Minister Netanyahu says he is feeling “terrific” and Israel can be the first country to beat the COVID-19 pandemic if people get vaccinated.

“I ask you … to go and get vaccinated,” Netanyahu tells reporters at Sheba Medical Center. “We are leaving the darkness of the coronavirus, the start of the journey to a great light.”

He urges Israelis to continue to follow the restrictions: social distancing, frequent hand-washing, and wearing masks.

“If everybody gets vaccinated more quickly, then we’ll restore normal life more quickly — and first and foremost the economy,” he says.

To get back to “business as usual… we need your help,” he says.

Netanyahu adds: “If everyone cooperates, keeps the rules and goes to get vaccinated, we’ll get out of this and we could well be the first country in the world to emerge from this [pandemic]. Let’s do it together.”

Asked by a reporter in English if he was nervous to get the shot, he laughs and says, “No, no, I wasn’t nervous. I thought it was important to set a personal example so that all Israelis would go and vaccinate themselves.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu receives a coronavirus vaccine at the Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, on December 19, 2020, becoming the first Israeli to get the vaccine. Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, the second to be vaccinated, is alongside him. (Photo by JACK GUEZ / AFP)

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein says he also feels fine after being vaccinated and to the disappointment of the fake news purveyors, he quips, “I haven’t grown a tail.”

Likud MK David Bitan remains hospitalized in serious but stable condition for COVID-19

The family of Likud MK David Bitan says he remains in serious but stable condition after being hospitalized for COVID-19.

A statement from Bitan’s family says he is still hooked up to an ECMO machine and is communicating with those around him.

“David is being treated with dedication by the Sheba Medical Center team and we would like to thank them,” the family says.

Likud MK David Bitan at the Knesset on January 15, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussil/Flash90)

US readies Moderna vaccine for distribution after granting emergency approval

NEW YORK — The first of millions of doses of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine are being prepared for shipping to locations across the United States, a top official says, hours after it was authorized for use in the hardest-hit country in the world.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced yesterday that it had granted emergency approval for the vaccine, a week after it did the same with the vaccine from Pfizer and BioNTech.

“Distribution of the Moderna vaccine has already begun,” says General Gus Perna, who is overseeing the massive logistical operation as part of the government’s Operation Warp Speed.

The first doses are being moved today from the manufacturing center in Bloomington, Indiana, to warehouses operated by logistics firm McKesson in preparation for shipping tomorrow.

“Boxes are being packed and loaded today. Trucks will begin rolling out tomorrow from FedEx and UPS,” the general says at a press briefing.

Pfizer’s vaccine must be stored at -70 degrees Celsius (-94 degrees Fahrenheit), a temperature much lower than standard freezers and which forced the company to develop special containers for transport.

But the Moderna vaccine can be stored at -20 degrees Celsius (-4 degrees Fahrenheit). Perna says the less stringent conditions allow “jurisdictions the flexibility to support hard to reach, small, and more rural areas,” though he adds that was up to state authorities.

Since the FDA granted the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine emergency authorization one week ago, some 2.9 million doses have been delivered in the US, according to the general.

He says the government still expects to have delivered 20 million doses of vaccine by the end of the year, although that figure may only be reached in the first week of January.

— AFP

Health Ministry reportedly pushing for sweeping new virus restrictions

Ahead of tomorrow’s scheduled meeting of the high-level coronavirus cabinet, the Health Ministry is demanding commerce be halted to curb rising infections, the Kan public broadcaster reports.

Numerous ministers are expected to object to a sweeping closure of businesses around the country, arguing instead that restrictions should only be imposed in high infection areas, according to the broadcaster.

The Health Ministry is also reportedly demanding that all grades above kindergarten halt classes in places with high morbidity, but ministers are expected to oppose this.

US general apologizes for ‘miscommunication’ over vaccine shipment to states

AP — The Army general in charge of getting COVID-19 vaccines across the United States apologizes for “miscommunication” with states over the number of doses to be delivered in the early stages of distribution.

“I failed. I’m adjusting. I am fixing and we will move forward from there,” Gen. Gustave Perna tells reporters in a telephone briefing.

Perna’s remarks come a day after a second vaccine was added in the fight against COVID-19, which has killed more than 312,000 people in the US. Governors in more than a dozen states have said the federal government has told them that next week’s shipment of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine will be less than originally projected.

Perna acknowledges the criticism and accepts blame.

“I want to take personal responsibility for the miscommunication,” he says. “I know that’s not done much these days. But I am responsible. … This is a Herculean effort and we are not perfect.”

The general says he made mistakes by citing numbers of doses that he believed would be ready.

“I am the one who approved forecast sheets. I’m the one who approved allocations,” Perna says. “There is no problem with the process. There is no problem with the Pfizer vaccine. There is no problem with the Moderna vaccine.”

There’s a distinction between manufactured vaccines and doses that are ready to be released. The finished product must undergo “rigorous quality control and sterility tests,” which can take up to a month, the Department of Health and Human Services says.

Perna says the government now is on track to get approximately 20 million doses to states by the first week of January, a combination of the newly approved Moderna vaccine and the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

He says 2.9 million Pfizer-BioNTech doses have been delivered to states so far.

— AP

Lebanese police clash with students protesting tuition hikes

BEIRUT — Lebanese riot police scuffle with students protesting a decision by top universities to adopt a new dollar exchange rate to price tuition — equivalent to a major fee hike.

Near the entrance of the American University of Beirut (AUB) in the city’s Hamra district, security forces fire tear gas to disperse protesters who are trying to approach the main gate.

Students respond by throwing water bottles and other objects at riot police blocking their path.

It isn’t immediately clear if there are any injuries.

Lebanese students burn dumpsters while protesting a decision by top universities to adopt a new dollar exchange rate to price tuition, in Beirut’s Hamra district, on December 19, 2020. (Anwar Amro/AFP)

The protest comes in response to a decision by AUB and the Lebanese American University (LAU), another top private institution, to price tuition based on an exchange rate of 3,900 Lebanese pounds to the dollar.

The nosediving currency is still officially pegged at around 1,500 pounds to the greenback.

The move has prompted fears that other universities could follow suit, potentially leading to an exodus of students from private institutions while public universities remain underfunded and overstretched.

Hundreds of students gathered in Hamra earlier today in a protest they billed a “student day of rage.”

They chanted anti-government slogans and called for affordable education in a country mired in its worst economic crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war.

Later in the evening, some torched dumpsters to block the street and vandalized banks before security forces pushed them out.

— AFP

Likud, Blue and White reportedly nearing deal to further delay budget deadline

Sources connected to talks between the coalition’s Likud and Blue and White party tell the Ynet news site that they’re optimistic a deal can be reached to avert new elections.

The unnamed sources it is possible to quickly pass a budget that runs through the end of the month and then pass a budget for 2021 by the end of January. The deadline to pass a budget — or postpone doing so — is Tuesday night.

Both Channel 12 news and the Kan public broadcaster say the agreement would see the deadline to pass a budget further delayed.

Blue and White has insisted a budget that also covers next year be passed, as part of the coalition agreement between the parties, which included a loophole allowing Prime Minister Netanyahu to retain the premiership in the case of new elections.

The sources also reportedly claim that an agreement is possible on the rotation deal to guarantee that Defense Minister Benny Gantz will become prime minister next November as planned. Changing the deal, they say, would be difficult legally, and Blue and White is opposed to such alterations.

Channel 12 also reports on an emerging deal on the budget, but says the main sticking point remains Likud’s demands for greater powers over legal and judicial appointments.

US records nearly a quarter million daily coronavirus cases

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — The United States adds a record of nearly a quarter million coronavirus cases in the past day.

Health experts says the record could increase as cases surge in various parts of the country and health care systems struggle to keep up.

Along with 249,709 new cases, there are an additional 2,814 reported deaths nationwide in the past 24 hours. That pushes the confirmed US death toll past 313,000, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University.

California leads the case surge with 48,221 more infections. Almost 17,000 people are hospitalized in California and health officials are scrambling to find enough beds for patients. Texas, Florida, New York and Tennessee all register more than 10,400 new cases.

The seven-day rolling average for new cases in the US rose in the past two weeks from 183,787 to 219,324 yesterday, an increase of nearly 20%.

Health officials are concerned about future cases brought on by travel and gatherings during the holidays and New Year’s.

— AP

IDF reportedly probing soldier who didn’t fire at Palestinian who threw fire bomb at him

The military is reportedly looking into the conduct of an IDF soldier who didn’t fire his weapon after a Palestinian in the West Bank threw a molotov cocktail at him.

Video of the incident, near the Kedumim settlement, shows the suspect standing at a bus stop before crossing the road to get in a car. After exiting the vehicle, he crosses back to the other side of the road, where the soldier approaches him.

After the two speak briefly, the suspect pulls out what appears to be a fire bomb and sets it alight. He then threw throws it at the solder, but misses, before running back across the street.

The soldier moves away from the blaze and doesn’t fire at the suspect as he flees.

There were no injuries.

The Israel Defense Forces is investigating the soldier’s conduct and why he didn’t shoot, according to Hebrew media reports.

An IDF statement says confirms a molotov cocktail was thrown at the soldier and says troops are searching for the suspect, but doesn’t address the reported investigation.

Hard-right lawmakers livid that soldier didn’t fire in response to fire bomb

Hard-right lawmakers fume after video shows a Palestinian chucking a fire bomb toward a soldier, who doesn’t respond.

“This story is just insane,” Yamina MK Bezalel Smotrich tweets. “But it’s not the soldier’s fault. The judicial system in the State of Israel which behaves like in Sodom is to blame.”

Jerusalem Minister Rafi Peretz of the Jewish Home party says the incident should have ended with a “neutralized terrorist.”

“Dead or alive,” he writes on Twitter, saying IDF commanders must ensure such an incident “doesn’t repeat itself.

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