Officials concerned by low vaccination rate among Arab Israelis

Health officials and public health experts call the reluctance of some Arab Israelis to take shot ‘worrisome,’ but say other factors are also playing a role in low turnout

An Israeli teacher receives a COVID-19 vaccine, at Shamir Medical Center in Be'er Ya'akov, on December 30, 2020. (Avi Dishi/Flash90)
An Israeli teacher receives a COVID-19 vaccine, at Shamir Medical Center in Be'er Ya'akov, on December 30, 2020. (Avi Dishi/Flash90)

Low coronavirus vaccination rates among Arab Israelis have raised concerns that Israel’s conservative minority may be immune to calls to get shots against the novel coronavirus — but experts say it’s more complicated than that.

While a few vaccination centers have been erected in Arab towns and cities, many facilities reported that most of those waiting in line were Jews. In Umm al-Fahm, Shfaram, and Nazareth — three major Arab Israeli cities — more than 75 percent of those vaccinated over the past few days have been Jews.

Public health expert Dr. Bishara Basharat, who directs a national nonprofit which promotes Arab health, agreed that some in the Arab community were reluctant to be vaccinated, a phenomenon he called “concerning.”

“To be honest, I didn’t expect this. There’s a lot of propaganda against the vaccine, lots of rumors on social media,” said Basharat, who formerly directed the Clalit health maintenance organization’s Northern District.

Arab Israelis constitute a disproportionately large number of Israel’s health care workers, especially nurses and pharmacists: a 2017 study found that around 40% of nursing students were Arab Israelis, even though they constitute around 21% of the population.

To combat mistrust of the vaccine, Basharat recommended an aggressive awareness campaign among Arab family doctors.

“Arab citizens trust their family doctors, the ones in their hometowns, whom they go to consult with on a regular basis. Once they are vaccinated, people will start to be convinced,” Basharat said.

A medical professional administers a coronavirus vaccine at a sports arena in Jerusalem, December 30, 2020. (AP/Maya Alleruzzo)

But while concerned about the spread of fake news and vaccine skepticism among Arab Israelis, health officials and public health experts also pointed out that other factors have played a key role in slowing the rollout of vaccines in the community.

Senior Clalit official Dr. Zahi Saeed, who advises the health provider on the Arab population’s health, emphasized that the Arab community’s relative youth was also a key factor in limiting its vaccination rate. Because vaccines are officially still available mostly to those over 60 or those who have risk factors, Saeed noted, a lower turnout was to be expected.

“We’re a young society. We’re a far smaller percentage of those over 60, even though we are a larger proportion of those with preexisting conditions,” said Saeed.

Senior Clalit official Dr. Zahi Saeed (courtesy)

Official figures on vaccination by nationality are hard to come by. However, Channel 12 reported Thursday that only 15% of Arab Israelis aged 50 and up have received the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine, compared with 25.5% among non-Haredi Jews and 27.8% among the ultra-Orthodox.

While it is clear that testing stations in Arab towns are seeing less demand by Arabs than health officials had hoped, a spokesperson for Clalit noted that Arabs were being vaccinated in Jewish towns as well.

The vast majority of Arab Israelis are registered in Clalit, the largest of Israel’s four health maintenance organizations. While slightly more than half of Israelis as a whole are in the HMO, around 70% of Arab Israelis are Clalit members.

Out of the 300,000 shots administered by Clalit, only around 5% — around 15,000 — had been distributed in Arab areas as of Wednesday night, Saeed told The Times of Israel. The figure does not include so-called “mixed cities” such as Lod, Ramle, Haifa, and Jerusalem, where around 10% of Israel’s Arab citizens live.

But only around 10 out of 145 Clalit clinics — around 6.8% of all the HMO’s stations — are located in Arab cities. Those cities are home to around 14.4% of the country’s population, making it even more likely that Arab residents will end up heading to a Jewish-majority city to be immunized.

The city of Sakhnin, Jan. 26, 2015 (AP Photo/Dan Balilty)

In the central Arab city of Sakhnin, health officials have seen a promising increase in Arab turnout over the past week. As more residents got vaccinated, more overcame their fear of the needle.

“It’s true, in the first days, we saw very low turnout — perhaps 80% Arabs and 20% Jews. Now we see something closer to 60-40, or even 70% Arabs,” said Dr. Nabil Abu Salah, who directs a Clalit clinic in Sakhnin.

“Many, many young people have called asking for vaccinations,” Dr. Abu Salah attested.

Abu Salah noted that an all-ages vaccine drive in Sakhnin two days before had seen overwhelming turnout from locals, including young people.

“People went nuts, it was so packed. We vaccinated 1,200 people and had to close when we ran out,” he added with a chuckle.

On Thursday night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paid a surprise visit to a vaccination center in the central Arab Israeli city of Tira to encourage more Arab Israelis to take the shot.

Ta’alu, ta’amu — go get vaccinated,” Netanyahu repeated in heavily-accented Arabic during the visit.

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