The Health Ministry announced Friday that its director-general Nachman Ash had approved giving COVID-19 vaccine boosters to all Israelis over the age of 40. The decision came after a government advisory panel of health experts made the recommendation Thursday evening.
Even before the ministry decision was announced, health clinics were already inviting all those in the relevant age group to schedule appointments to get their third shot, as Ash had been widely expected to sign off on the move.
The shot had previously been available to all those over 50.
Also now eligible at any age over 18 are pregnant women, teachers, healthcare workers, staff in nursing homes and welfare programs, prisoners and prison guards, and at-risk groups including overweight or diabetic individuals.
Only those who received the second vaccine dose at least five months earlier are eligible for the shot.
Israel is the first country in the world to offer a third vaccine to such a broad slice of its population, as it seeks to combat the highly infectious Delta variant of the coronavirus.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, 49, also did not await Ash’s okay, with his office announcing Thursday night that he would be inoculated the next morning.
“I call on everyone who meets the criteria that have been determined by the committee – get vaccinated,” Bennett said in a statement. “Take responsibility for the health and livelihoods of all of us. This is not the time to gamble with life.”
The program has already seen over 1 million people over the age of 50, the immunocompromised and healthcare workers receive a third dose of the shot.
The Walla news site reported that some clinics had already begun vaccinating those in the 40-49 range overnight.
“Once I heard that vaccinations were being opened to ages 40 and up, I went to the Meuhedet clinic without an appointment and hoped for the best, and indeed they agreed to give me the shot on the spot,” Ramat Hasharon man Lior Sion, 44, told the site.
The expert panel had considered expanding the coverage of boosters to all those who have had two vaccine doses, of any age. However, that proposal was ultimately not approved.
The Ynet news site reported that Ash still opposes expanding vaccinations to the entire cohort of already vaccinated individuals.
Speculation that the program will be significantly expanded has ramped up since US health officials announced Wednesday that a third dose would be offered to anyone over 18 years old starting September 20.
Last month, Israel became the first country in the world to begin offering booster shots to those over the age of 60, and, last week, expanded the eligibility to those over 50.
According to Health Ministry data on Thursday, 1,260,736 Israelis have received the third dose so far.
Israel has seen case numbers skyrocket in recent weeks due to the Delta variant. Over, 7,900 new cases were reported Wednesday, and 599 people were hospitalized in serious condition with the disease. A total of 6,752 people have died from the virus since the start of the outbreak last year.
Health officials expect the numbers to climb even higher and have warned the government that, at current rates, during September, the number of patients requiring hospital treatment will reach 5,000, half of whom will be in serious condition.
Channel 12 reported on Thursday evening that officials on the Israeli government panel have assessed that without a third shot, some 100 vaccinated individuals aged 40-49 will experience severe COVID illness over the next 30 days.
According to experts on the health panel cited by the network, those vaccinated with a booster shot are six to eight times less likely to have a severe case of the disease and four times less likely to get infected, compared with those who received two doses.
The experts also increasingly believe that the Delta variant is not particularly capable of bypassing the Pfizer vaccine used in Israel, rather, it is simply the waning effect of previous shots that is causing vaccinated people to fall ill, according to former Health Ministry director-general Gabi Barbash.
The booster’s ability to once again protect much of the population from Delta once administered is evidence of this, he told Channel 12.
Bennett’s government has resisted calls for tighter restrictions or a lockdown to bring down infection rates, insisting that the socioeconomic damage wrought would be too great. The administration has touted vaccines as a healthier way to thwart the spread of the virus.