Omicron is advancing and spreading throughout the world, and Israel is no exception. Two in every five Israelis have little to no immunity against infection by the variant. Worrying? Yes. A sign of failing vaccination efforts? Certainly not.
It’s been a troubling week in COVID terms. Israel’s largest hospital took the unusual step of calling a press conference on Saturday night. Sheba Medical Center researchers had concluded that people who were vaccinated with Pfizer shots half a year ago or more had “almost no neutralizing ability” against Omicron (while those given a booster were far better protected).
Digest this as you look at Israel’s vaccination stats and the picture prompts concern: If you count all those who are unvaccinated plus those who have failed to get a booster shot six months after receiving their first two shots, you find that a full 42 percent of people are unprotected.
Some Israeli news outlets were quick to jump to conclusions. “Once a world leader, Israel lags behind on COVID vaccinations,” declared a Haaretz headline; “Has Israel become the ‘unvaccinated nation?” The Jerusalem Post asked.
One unconfirmed Hebrew-language report, on Israel National News, quoted Prime Minister Naftali Bennett as declaring during a meeting Sunday that the country’s immunization rate is “horrible.”
Let us be clear: The Omicron threat is very real and potentially serious. It could yet wreak havoc on Israel, and we mustn’t be lulled into a false sense of security by its hitherto slow advance here. Yes, large numbers of Israelis are facing Omicron unprepared, and yes, only a tenth of kids aged 5 to 11 have received a first vaccine shot, three full weeks after becoming eligible.
But anyone who thinks the country’s vaccination stats today are cause for disappointment, or indeed a reason to berate the public, is wrong.
World’s third most-boosted
Looking at the Health Ministry’s graph for overall vaccination rates, the obvious conclusion is that Israelis are deserving of praise. The percentage of fully vaccinated Israelis has actually been climbing since October.
What is more, today that number is virtually the same as it was at the end of July — just before the rules of the record-keeping game suddenly changed: In the summer, Israel made every adult eligible for boosters. People who let six months or more pass since their second shot without taking boosters were no longer labeled as “vaccinated,” but rather as having “expired vaccines.”
This led the percentage of “vaccinated” citizens to swiftly nosedive from around 60% to 45%. Unfazed, the Israeli public once again started rolling up sleeves, and lifted vaccination rates (now based on a three-dose regimen) back to what they were when two shots were the gold standard.
This obliging response is all the more impressive when you recall that Israel was out on a limb when it first decided on boosters, with World Health Organization officials loudly opposing third doses, and America’s Food and Drug Authority at that point rejecting boosters for most people.
Now, thanks to the excellent take-up, Israel is the third most-boosted country in the world per capita, after Iceland and Chile. Nurses have given 44 booster shots per 100 citizens, which is particularly high given that there is a large population of under-16s who are largely ineligible for boosters. The figure for the US stands at 17 booster shots per 100 people, and the world average is 5.
In recent days circumstances have certainly changed. To fight the new Omicron variant, it’s clear that a booster shot is key if you’re half a year after your second shot. Yes, so-called “expired” vaccines may still downgrade the seriousness of Omicron. We just don’t know yet. Nevertheless, the Sheba study suggests there is fresh urgency to encourage the Israeli public to get boosters as advised.
Redirect the message to those who most need the booster
But in his messaging to the Israeli public, Bennett isn’t getting the tone right. Whether or not the reported “horrible” remark is accurate, his comments at Sunday’s cabinet meeting missed the mark, stressing that Israel is “not sufficiently protected” while conveying a sense that we’re letting ourselves down.
Those comments omitted one important component: praise for the public whose responsiveness to the vaccine drive has enabled the country to face Omicron in good shape.
Instead of complaining, Bennett’s government needs to better focus the country’s efforts on the groups that most need the shot.
Yes, it’s potentially bad for transmission rates that 17.5% of people in their 20s have expired vaccines, but it’s far, far more serious that 13% of people in their 90s need a booster and haven’t gotten one.
Why? What’s holding them back? This is an age group that is highly vulnerable to hospitalization and death in the case of infection. It’s unlikely that any significant number of people in this age group objects to taking a booster. Many will need logistical help to get a shot organized; some will be unaware of its utter urgency, which can be quickly fixed by a phone call from their doctor.
Children, however, are a very different story. The disappointment that just a tenth of 5 to 11-year-olds have taken shots is misplaced. While child vaccines are valuable, it was always going to be a slow process. Kids tend to experience the virus lightly, and it’s natural for parents to spend some time weighing whether they want to give them to the young. Furthermore, it’s a known phenomenon that parents wait to see others around them vaccinate first, and then follow once they see with their own eyes that there’s nothing to worry about.
Sure, some other countries are progressing faster with child vaccines, but extreme protectiveness of children is a national characteristic of Israel. Vaccination of kids will no doubt gather pace, though realistically, levels won’t reach those of adults. Still, every child vaccinated is valuable in breaking infection chains in schools.
Now is the time for Israel’s leaders to take a wide-angle lens look at the country’s big picture, and speak to the public about its significant vaccination achievements, while talking frankly about the challenges that lie ahead.
The road to immunization involves respectfully galvanizing people, while commending what has been gained to date. Fail to do this and inevitably citizens will end up feeling like they are being sent on a guilt trip, and come to resent the pandemic leadership they need to respect.
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