Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday night became the first Israeli to receive the coronavirus vaccine, getting the shot on live television and setting off the nation’s ambitious COVID-19 vaccination campaign, hailing the occasion as a “very great day” for Israel.
“One small injection for a man and one giant leap for the health of us all,” Netanyahu, 71, quipped from Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, paraphrasing astronaut Neil Armstrong’s famous words after landing on the moon.
Riffing on the theme of the Hanukkah holiday that just ended, he added: “We are leaving the darkness of the coronavirus, at the start of the journey to a great light.” He said he hoped Israel could be the first country to beat the COVID-19 pandemic if people get vaccinated efficiently.
“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,” he said.
The prime minister’s vaccination process proved fairly protracted, with lots of checking and rechecking of the vaccine vial.
When the syringe was finally ready, the doctor — Netanyahu’s personal physician Tzvi Berkovitz — attempted to inject Netanyahu in his left arm, whereas the prime minister had been sitting patiently for long minutes with his right arm bared. Netanyahu, who is left-handed, redirected Berkovitz to the right.
Health Minister Yuli Edelstein was also vaccinated moments later.
After receiving his shot, Netanyahu was placed in observation for half an hour to monitor for possible allergic reactions, which have been reported in a few very rare cases.
Netanyahu pledged that millions of doses of Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine will arrive by the end of the month and urged 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 said. “Go get vaccinated.”
He said 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.”
Netanyahu and Edelstein must each receive a booster shot in three weeks for optimal protection from the novel coronavirus.
In the meantime, Netanyahu urged Israelis to continue to follow the health restrictions: social distancing, frequent hand-washing, and wearing masks.
Asked by a reporter in English if he was nervous to get the shot, he laughed and said: “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.”
Netanyahu said he felt “terrific” after the shot, and Edelstein said he too felt fine.
“I haven’t grown a tail,” the health minister said wryly, referencing the avalanche of “fake news” concerning the vaccine’s safety.
As Netanyahu was being vaccinated, some 300 people protested outside as part of weekly Saturday night demonstrations against the prime minister.
“The guy’s come to get vaccinated as if he’s going to be our salvation,” one protester told Channel 12. “He’s come here to do his show, his spin… the personal example of a [man] suspected of briber, criminality and breach of trust is pathetic and unneeded.”
Netanyahu’s vaccination made him one of the first world leaders to receive the inoculation.
US Vice President Mike Pence got the shot live on television Friday, while President-elect Joe Biden is set to receive his shot on Monday. President Trump has made it clear he is not planning to take the vaccine imminently, citing the belief that his recovery from a brief but severe bout of COVID-19 has given him immunity.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin will receive the vaccination Sunday when the country starts vaccinating health workers. From Monday, Israelis aged 60-plus and at-risk populations can receive a vaccine at health maintenance organizations (HMOs) with an appointment.
The government hopes to inoculate some 60,000 people per day and as many as two million Israelis by the end of January.
Earlier Saturday, Channel 13 reported that authorities were already out of doses to allocate after sending the first batch of several tens of thousands of doses to HMOs, with no clear timeline for when the next shipments of shots would arrive.
The director-general of the Health Ministry denied the report.
“There will be vaccines for all the Israeli people, talk about a shortage isn’t correct,” Chezy Levy was quoted saying by the Ynet news site.
Coronavirus czar Nachman Ash warned on Saturday that Israel would not see significant results from the vaccination drive for weeks.
“We will start to see results after no less than two months from the start of the immunization program,” Ash said. “Despite the vaccine, we need to keep to the restrictions. Go and get vaccinated, but keep to the regulations at the same time.”
Levy also called on all Israelis to get vaccinated Saturday. He told Channel 12 News that he was “happy and excited” the campaign was beginning.
He also warned Israel was headed toward new restrictions to curb a rise in infections, and maybe even a third lockdown.
With new daily cases on the rise, the coronavirus cabinet was set to meet Sunday to discuss new restrictions on the public, including possibly shutting down commerce for several weeks.
Among the steps under consideration are the closure of all street shops and malls within the next few days as well as the possible closure of some school grades in areas with high infection rates.
Israel will deploy the Pfizer vaccine in the first stage of the inoculation push. The country also has an agreement to receive 6 million doses of the Moderna vaccine, enough for 3 million people, which was authorized in the United States for an emergency rollout on Friday by the Food and Drug Administration.
However, Channel 12 has said Moderna’s vaccine is not expected to arrive in Israel earlier than April.
On Saturday evening the Health Ministry said 2,815 new coronavirus cases were confirmed Friday, the fourth day in a row of nearly 3,000 daily cases. The number of active cases stood at 23,917, of a total of 372,401 cases since the pandemic began. The death toll was at 3,070. Of the active cases, 445 people were in serious condition, including 109 on ventilators. Another 144 were in moderate condition and the rest had mild or no symptoms.
The Health Ministry confirmed Saturday night that as part of new steps to try to limit the spread of the pandemic, 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 said mandatory quarantine for Israelis coming from current “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.