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Netanyahu: Israel aiming to vaccinate 90% of over-50s within two weeks

PM, health minister make the case for extending lockdown beyond weekend to complete more vaccinations, prevent gatherings

People receive a COVID-19 vaccine, at a sports hall turned into a vaccination center in Hod haSharon, February 2, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
People receive a COVID-19 vaccine, at a sports hall turned into a vaccination center in Hod haSharon, February 2, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday that the country is aiming to vaccinate 90 percent of those over the age of 50 against COVID-19 within two weeks, as part of its race to offset fast-spreading mutations of the coronavirus.

The prime minister also made the case for extending the ongoing lockdown until the beginning of next week, saying it would enable hundreds of thousands more to be vaccinated against the virus before some restrictions are eased.

“The vaccination drive is our key” to lifting the lockdown, Netanyahu said at a press conference alongside Health Minister Yuli Edelstein.

If the country manages to vaccinate those over 50, “then we are on our way to victory over the coronavirus,” Netanyahu said, and noted that 77 percent of that age group have already received the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine that Israel is using in it mass inoculation drive.

He noted that 97% of COVID deaths and 93% of serious cases are among those over 50.

Screen capture from video of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a briefing on the coronavirus outbreak, at the Health Ministry, February 2, 2021. (Ynet news)

Speaking more generally, Netanyahu urged all Israelis to get vaccinated.

“This is important for all of us, because it allows us to open the economy gradually and, above all else, to save lives,” he said.

Netanyahu maintained that the closure will be gradually lifted next week, insisting he wanted to extend the strict lockdown, now in its fourth week and set to end Friday, until after the weekend.

Extending the lockdown by another three days would mean an additional 200,000 people could be vaccinated, including some 120,000 aged 50 or above, Netanyahu said.

He also responded to calls by coalition partners in the Blue and White party to ease some limitations on Friday, dismissing it as “populism.”

Edelstein, who has reportedly been lobbying Netanyahu to extend the lockdown, warned that if it is lifted as planned on Friday, there would likely be a surge in social activity, with friends and families gathering over the weekend, and many opened commercial sites would “draw millions of people.”

“We need to prevent that,” he said and warned that if restrictions are rolled back before the weekend the day would forever be known as “Black Friday,” due to the consequences of virus spread.

Blue and White, in response, said the press conference was an attempt to “cover up the failure of the lockdown.”

“If we don’t present an exit strategy there will be no public faith,” the party said and insisted that its approach is based on responsible principles.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein speaks during a press conference in Airport City, on September 17, 2020 (Flash90)

Ministers are scheduled to meet Wednesday to decide on an exit strategy and possibly extend some aspects of the lockdown.

Blue and White announced that it would back maintaining a strict lockdown on cities with the highest rates of infection, but would also recommend that in other areas some restrictions be lifted. These include a prohibition on traveling further than 1 kilometer (0.625 miles) from home other than for essential needs, a ban on the operation of businesses that meet with clients one at a time, a ban on restaurants offering in-person takeout (restaurants are currently only allowed to sell food via delivery), and a ban on bed-and-breakfasts hosting nuclear families.

The party said it would back continuing general prohibitions limiting gatherings to just five people indoors and ten outdoors.

The fourth week of lockdown was added on Sunday, with Blue and White only agreeing to the measure on condition that enforcement be increased to ensure the closure is effective, and on the passing of a law doubling fines for violators. The party, led by Defense Minister Benny Gantz, had been reluctant to continue lockdown measures that have shuttered all but essential businesses and the entire education system, except for special education institutes.

Some easing of the education system is expected to be approved by ministers for next week.

Despite over three weeks of lockdown and a world-leading vaccination program that has already given at least the first of the two-dose vaccine to over a third of its population, Israel has seen daily virus caseloads remain high; the number of seriously ill patients stuck at over a thousand, burdening hospitals; and the positive test rate barely dipping.

Health Ministry figures released Tuesday showed there were 8,281 cases confirmed the day before, with the positive test rate at 9.2%.

Since the start of the outbreak last year, 659,356 people have been diagnosed with the virus in Israel and 4,886 have died of COVID-19. There are 72,488 active cases, including 1,113 patients in serious condition, of whom 408 are considered critical.

The ministry data showed that 3,207,157 people have already had the first dose of the vaccine, including 1,844,206 who have also had the second shot.

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