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Vaccine overload: Health providers swamped as tens of thousands seek virus shots

Call centers briefly crash as masses, including at-risk and over 60-year-olds, try to book appointments for immunization; logistical problems hold up supplies to aged care homes

A medical staff member receives a COVID-19 vaccine, at the Hadassah Medical Center, on December 20, 2020 in Jerusalem. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
A medical staff member receives a COVID-19 vaccine, at the Hadassah Medical Center, on December 20, 2020 in Jerusalem. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Tens of thousands of Israelis applied for appointments to get a coronavirus shot as the vaccination campaign kicked off Sunday, with the rush briefly overwhelming health maintenance organization (HMO) call centers that struggled to deal with the demand.

Despite difficulties getting through on phone lines and many who spent hours on hold, with one lung-transplant patient telling Channel 12 he waited over two hours to get through to his HMO, by the end of Sunday some 170,000 people had made vaccination appointments.

The first wave of inoculations which began Sunday was aimed at medical staff, at-risk populations and those over 60, all of whom are considered high-risk groups. But while medical staff in hospitals were able to get the first round of the two-shot vaccine at work, members of the public were left to arrange an appointment for themselves.

Eldercare homes also faced a setback and will have to wait another week before starting to vaccinate residents due to a packing problem with the vaccine units, the channel reported. Residents are unable to book private vaccinations and are to be inoculated on-site as part of the government program.

The vaccines arrive in packages of 975 units, more than most individual care homes need, and officials are concerned that due to the difficulties in storing the vaccines in sub-zero temperatures the surplus will go to waste.

The issue is expected to be resolved by next Sunday and the vaccines will be administered by Magen David Adom paramedics.

A medical staff member receives a Covid-19 vaccine, at the Shaare Zedek hospital, in Jerusalem, on December 20, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Supplies to the HMOs were also said to be falling short of demand, Channel 13 reported.

While 170,000 people have already made vaccination appointments, the country’s two biggest HMOs, Maccabi and Clalit, have reportedly only been given 30,000 and 40,000 units respectively.

However, senior health officials predict that by the end of the month millions of vaccines will arrive in the country, the station said.

Despite the teething troubles, the Health Ministry broadened the scope of those who can receive the vaccine, removing previous advice that pregnant women should not get the shot, Channel 12 reported. Likewise, women who are planning a pregnancy or those who are nursing can be inoculated.

A restriction against those who suffer severe allergic reactions has also been lifted, the station reported, with only those with very specific allergies to some of the vaccine’s content unable to be inoculated. The report did not specify what content may be problematic but indicated that the information would be provided by the HMOs to those who come for the shots.

A medical staff member receives a COVID-19 vaccine, at the Hadassah Medical Center, on December 20, 2020 in Jerusalem. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The vaccine program began as alarms were being sounded around the world of a new mutation in the virus, detected in Britain, South Africa and Denmark.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that the new strain appeared to spread faster but was not necessarily more deadly.

“According to the information we have, this mutation spreads much faster than the normal virus but it is not more deadly, and we have no sign that the vaccine we have will not overcome it,” he said, without elaborating. “We are doing everything we can to prevent the mutation from entering Israel.”

Those measures included banning entry to Israel for foreigners arriving from those three countries and imposing compulsory two-week quarantine at special hotels for Israelis returning from the locations.

President Reuven Rivlin received the shot Sunday at a Jerusalem hospital. IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi received the military’s first dose of the vaccine in order to set a “personal example” to the rest of the troops, the army said.

Netanyahu and Health Ministry Yuli Edelstein were the first in the country to get the vaccine, getting their shots in front of live cameras on Saturday night.

COVID-19 vaccines, at the Rambam Hospital in Haifa, on December 20, 2020. (Meir Vaknin/Flash90)

Israel is deploying the Pfizer vaccine in the first stage of the inoculation push.

Along with some four million doses from Pfizer expected to arrive by the end of the month, Channel 12 said Wednesday that another four million were expected to come by the end of March for a total of eight million doses — enough to vaccinate four million people. Israel’s population is about 9.25 million.

The vaccine comes in two doses, administered three weeks apart.

The Health Ministry has laid out targets on the distribution of the shot.

After inoculating those over 60, Israelis working in jobs with a high risk of exposure to the virus, such as teachers, social workers, first responders, and prison staff (prisoners will also get priority); and Israel Defense Forces soldiers and other security personnel will be vaccinated.

Last will come the rest of the population, with a timeline depending on how many doses arrive in Israel and the level of demand by the priority groups.

Those under the age of 16 will not get the vaccine.

In light of the first day problems, the Israel Defense Forces proposed to assist the HMOs when it comes to vaccinating the broader public, Channel 13 reported. The Home Front Command has offered to handle the logistics by setting up eight to 12 distribution centers around the country. The proposal is being discussed by officials, the report said.

President Reuven Rivlin getting vaccinated against the coronavirus at the Hadassah Ein Kerem Medical Center in Jerusalem, December 20, 2020. (Mark Neyman/GPO)

The government hopes to inoculate some 60,000 people per day and as many as two million Israelis by the end of January. But Hebrew media reports said the first week would serve as a pilot program, tamping down expectations that hundreds of thousands of Israelis would be vaccinated within days.

The country also has an agreement to receive 6 million doses of the Moderna vaccine, enough for 3 million people, which was authorized in the United States for an emergency rollout on Friday by the Food and Drug Administration. However, Channel 12 has said Moderna’s vaccine is not expected to arrive in Israel earlier than April.

Israel is contending with a marked rise in new COVID-19 cases, with daily infections surging to almost 3,000 from Tuesday through Friday, the highest caseloads in over two months.

The government-set benchmark for reimposing restrictions is an average of 2,500 daily cases over an entire week or a basic reproduction number of over 1.32. That figure was at 1.27 last week, according to the Health Ministry. Any value over one means the virus infection rate is increasing. Netanyahu on Sunday reportedly pushed for the swift imposition of a stringent lockdown.

On Saturday there were 1,871 cases diagnosed according to Health Ministry figures released Sunday, although weekend testing is usually lower than later in the week.

There were some 25,000 active patients in the country as of Monday morning, and since the start of the outbreak earlier this year, 3,100 people have died.

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