Ombudsman: Health Ministry didn’t check 82% of reports on COVID vaccine side effects

Comptroller says ministry failed to sufficiently combat vaccine misinformation during pandemic, made decisions on vaccine’s safety based on incomplete data

An Israeli health worker prepares a coronavirus vaccine shot against COVID-19, at a health clinic in Katzrin, on November 16, 2021. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)
An Israeli health worker prepares a coronavirus vaccine shot against COVID-19, at a health clinic in Katzrin, on November 16, 2021. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)

State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman’s office released a report Tuesday criticizing the Health Ministry’s conduct during the COVID-19 pandemic, revealing that the ministry didn’t process or analyze thousands of reports it had received about various vaccine side effects.

In 2021, the Health Ministry received some 345,200 reports on side effects caused by the coronavirus vaccine, sent by hospitals and Health Maintenance Organizations, the Comptroller’s Office said, but just 18 percent of reports were accurately recorded in the ministry’s database. The other 82% of reports were lost due to technical errors and system malfunctions.

The Health Ministry also failed to process an additional 33,000 reports filed by the public regarding side effects due to limited ability to analyze reports filed anonymously. Adding to that, a lack of manpower in the ministry’s Department of Epidemiology meant that reports that contained identifying details were also unable to be reviewed and investigated.

As a result of the missing data, the Health Ministry based its findings on the safety of the COVID-19 vaccine on just 55,000 reports.

The majority of the side effects that were successfully recorded were mild, the Comptroller’s Office found, and included complaints such as low fever and pain at the vaccine site.

However, there were instances of more serious side effects as well, including roughly 200 reports from women experiencing changes in their menstrual cycles after receiving the vaccine. Although the Health Ministry recorded these side effects, it did not investigate them in a timely manner, the Comptroller’s Office stated.

In practice, the Health Ministry was found to have investigated just 1,000 instances of severe side effects. Of that number, it examined 275 cases of myocarditis and pericarditis, the majority of which resulted in the patient needing to be hospitalized.

In response to the findings detailed in the report, the Health Ministry said Tuesday that it had accurately collected all reported instances of side effects, saying that it had collected the data in a new system rather than in the ministry’s usual database.

“Since there were dozens of reports that didn’t contain critical information or that were unrelated to the coronavirus vaccines, it was agreed that the reports would be collected manually and analyzed by Health Ministry employees,” it added as an explanation as to why the databases appeared to lack data.

FILE: A protester, right, holds up a sign with a swastika during an anti-vaccine protest outside the Bronx office of Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, November 14, 2021. Former Westchester County executive and gubernatorial candidate Rob Astorino, at podium, spoke at the rally. (courtesy, Jeffrey Dinowitz, via Twitter)

The State Comptroller’s report also found that the Health Ministry had failed to educate the public sufficiently on combatting false information and anti-vaccination propaganda, and didn’t have any strategy to prevent it from spreading.

The failure to combat anti-vaccine misinformation may have resulted in increased skepticism toward vaccines in general, the Comptroller’s Office found, citing data collected in a Government Advertising Bureau survey in 2022, which found that 57% of parents were concerned about vaccines causing permanent damage to their children, up from 46% in 2016.

In light of the findings, Englman instructed the Health Ministry to implement a more advanced system for storing, collection and analyzing data on vaccine side effects.

He also suggested that going forward, the Health Ministry should work with the National Public Diplomacy Directorate to formulate a strategy to combat misinformation during a time of emergency, such as the outbreak of a pandemic.

The Health Ministry’s response added that the report “does not reflect the ministry’s work during the pandemic or the reality faced by healthcare systems around the world and in Israel in particular.”

“Despite what was written in the report, the State of Israel was praised around the world for its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the ministry is proud of its practices and its professional and dedicated teams.”

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