Task force says effect of vaccine on pandemic won’t be felt until end of winter

Health Ministry chief hopeful 1st shot of Pfizer’s vaccine will be given next week; daily average of new infections rises over past week, with ultra-Orthodox community seeing surge

Health care workers test Israelis for coronavirus at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv on December 10, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Health care workers test Israelis for coronavirus at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv on December 10, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

A military task force on Sunday predicted that the planned vaccination drive would not have a marked impact on the coronavirus pandemic until the end of winter, as Israel readies to begin administering Pfizer’s vaccine.

In light of this forecast, the Corona National Information and Knowledge Center called for widespread mask-wearing to minimize contagion until there is a “real influence of the vaccines” on curbing morbidity in the country.

Officials have set December 27 as the start date for administering vaccines, with 60,000 people to be inoculated per day. But Health Ministry director-general Chezy Levy signaled the rollout could begin before then, after the US Food and Drug Administration granted emergency approval over the weekend for Pfizer’s vaccine.

“We need to review samples of the material that arrived, and additional approvals. I hope that the first shot will be given at the beginning of next week,” Levy told Kan public radio on Sunday.

An Israeli nurse seen during a simulated vaccination against the COVID-19 virus, at the Sheba Medical Center near Tel Aviv. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

He pushed back against concerns that the vaccine isn’t safe, saying immunization is the only way to ensure public health.

“There is no vaccine or drug that is 100 percent safe. I can say that the vaccine is safe, tested and proven in thousands of [trial] subjects that there are no serious side effects. It is safe and effective,” Levy said.

His comments came after Channel 13 news reported that Health Ministry and hospital representatives would meet Sunday to discuss moving up the December 27 start date. Health maintenance organizations (HMOs) told the ministry they can begin the vaccination drive on December 20, the network reported Saturday.

Israel has purchased millions of dozes of Pfizer’s vaccine, and the first batch landed at Ben Gurion Airport on Wednesday.

The DHL freight plane transporting for the first batch of Pfizer covid-19 vaccine lands at Ben Gurion International Airport, December 9, 2020 (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

Coronavirus czar Nachman Ash called Saturday for all Israelis to be vaccinated, saying “this is our chance to get out of this pandemic.”

According to a Health Ministry plan, medical workers would be first to receive the vaccine, followed by the elderly. Those under 16, women who are pregnant, people with serious allergies, and Israelis who have recovered from COVID-19 won’t be vaccinated, according to reports in the Hebrew-language media earlier this week.

Channel 12 on Thursday said Levy was looking at the possibility of not closely policing the order of vaccination, as the public may at first be hesitant to get inoculated. If the ministry has enough doses and not enough public interest, officials may simply allow anyone who wishes to be vaccinated, the report said.

Chezy Levy, director-general of the Health Ministry, speaks during a press conference about the coronavirus on September 17, 2020. (Flash90)

The expected approval by Israel of Pfizer’s vaccine comes as the country grapples with rising infection numbers, with officials weighing plans to tighten restrictions — and then backing down.

The Health Ministry said 1,288 new coronavirus cases were confirmed Saturday, down slightly from previous days, though the number of tests performed was also lower as testing usually drops off on weekends and holidays.

Another 124 cases recorded on Sunday morning brought the number of infections since the pandemic began to 356,015, while another four deaths overnight raised the national toll to 2,983.

There were 321 people in serious condition, including 128 on ventilators. Of the 17,339 total active cases, another 117 were in moderate condition and the rest had mild or no symptoms.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews walk in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City on December 9, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The ministry said 43,952 tests were conducted Saturday, 2.9 percent of which came back positive.

According to the Coronavirus National Information and Knowledge Center, the average number of new cases per day over the past week stood at 1,700. It said the percentage of positive tests also rose, despite an increase in testing, which usually leads to a drop in the positivity rate.

Additionally, the Health Ministry said the overall basic reproduction rate, which represents the average number of people every carrier infects, dropped slightly to 1.12. Any reading over one signals the spread of the virus is accelerating.

The rate was highest among the ultra-Orthodox public, overtaking the Arab Israeli community, where recent outbreaks have been concentrated.

During the first two waves of the virus in Israel, infection rates were far higher among the ultra-Orthodox, though recent official statistics have suggested the number of new cases in Haredi areas was below that of the general public.

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