Residents: 'We see they're OK, so now we're happy taking it'

Vying for vaccines, Jewish Israelis help fill near-empty clinics in Arab towns

Locals say frenzied influx of outsiders looking to secure spare coronavirus shots and slots is helping bolster inoculation drive among initially skeptical Arab community

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Naama Gatt, a 75-year-old kibbutznik, waiting for her vaccine in the Arab Israeli town of Baqa al-Gharbiyye, on January 3, 2020 (Nathan Jeffay/Times of Israel)
Naama Gatt, a 75-year-old kibbutznik, waiting for her vaccine in the Arab Israeli town of Baqa al-Gharbiyye, on January 3, 2020 (Nathan Jeffay/Times of Israel)

The sounds of the Islamic call to prayer wafted through the air as Naama Gatt made her way into the clinic in the town of Baqa al-Gharbiye.

“I’m here for my vaccination,” Gatt, 75, said in Hebrew, amid the Arabic-language signage.

The town of Baqa al-Gharbiye is a short drive from Gatt’s home on Kibbutz Barkai, but in a different world — not only culturally but in terms of coronavirus vaccine waiting times, which is exactly what brought her here.

Gatt was one of thousands of Israelis who have flocked to Arab towns for a chance to get immunized from the coronavirus faster than they might otherwise, a new type of medical tourism taking advantage of lower turnout rates in the Arab community and generally lax adherence to vaccine priority schedules. Locals have not only welcomed the interlocutors but say they are helping firm up the sluggish response to the vaccination drive among Arabs.

“I like the fact we’re vaccinating together here, Jews and Arabs, and ending the pandemic together,” Gatt told The Times of Israel. “This makes me happy.”

The appeal of the lifehack has only grown as reports have proliferated of vaccine shortages and possible delays, and a potential pause to the inoculation drive next week.

As of Tuesday, a Facebook group of Israelis discussing where they stand the best chance of finding a spare shot — with much of the discussion focused on Arab towns — had some 43,000 members. Countless WhatsApp groups exist for the same purpose.

Coronavirus czar Nachman Ash visiting a vaccination center in Baqa al-Gharbiye, on December 26, 2020. (Mazawi Pirsumim / Israel Ministry of Health)

When the immunization drive kicked off late last month, Jewish Israelis rushed to get their shots while the Arab community was far more cautious. This created a surplus of doses and appointment slots in Arab areas, and a huge online community of mostly Jewish citizens helping each other to sniff out spare capacity and fill it.

Jalad Gadani, a resident of the Arab Israeli town of Baqa al-Gharbiyye, in his local clinic on January 3, 2020 (Nathan Jeffay/Times of Israel)

In Baqa al-Gharbiye, a scrum of dozens of Jewish Israelis, old and young, stood outside the town’s Clalit vaccination center on Sunday. Some were secular, others religious, including one man in ultra-Orthodox attire with long sidelocks.

Locals in the sleepy town of some 30,000 northeast of Netanya were bemused — but pleased — to see the influx of visitors, most of whom would normally whizz past the city on Route 6 without a second thought.

“I’m happy to see the Jewish people who are coming here,” said Jalad Gadani, 43, standing in the clinic shortly after his inoculation.

“I want to return to normal, and that means everyone, Arabs and Jews, getting the vaccine. So seeing people from outside the town arriving to do this feels good. By all backing vaccination together, we can put the coronavirus behind us.”

His vaccine enthusiasm is something that health providers are working hard to spread in the Arab community, expending efforts that are unnecessary in most Jewish areas. As Gadani spoke, a speaker mounted on a pickup truck was driving around the town, playing a recorded message in Arabic attempting to persuade people to get shots.

“Only with the vaccine can we defeat the virus, protecting the lives and health of those we love, and return to normal life,” said the loud recorded message, along with logistical details.

Israel’s four healthcare providers have been eager to ensure strong vaccine supply in Arab areas, which have been particularly hard-hit by coronavirus.

But the initial reaction was hesitant, and while Arab Israelis are now increasingly embracing the vaccine, they are still doing so in smaller numbers.

Official figures on vaccination rates by nationality are hard to come by. However, Channel 12 news reported late last week that only 15 percent of Arab Israelis aged 50 and up had received the first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, compared with 25.5% among non-Haredi Jews and 27.8% among the ultra-Orthodox. A separate report by the channel on Sunday claimed that 40% of appointments with the Meuhedet healthcare provider in the Arab community had been no-shows.

As word got out of spare vaccines and empty slots, Jewish Israelis eager for shots began trying their luck in the Arab areas. Some health officials estimated that as many as 70 percent of vaccinations in some clinics in Arab areas were given to Jews from other areas.

“At the start, there was a takeover by Jews of [vaccination] centers in Arab areas,” Ayman Seif, who coordinates the state’s response to the pandemic in the Arab community, told Channel 12 news this week.

He said that while he was “happy to see Jewish Israelis flocking in droves to Arab towns, on the other hand it is coming at the expense of Arab society,” noting efforts to up turnout rates in Arab areas.

Rather than dampen turnout or engender hard feelings, watching a stream of Jewish people arriving in their towns for shots has actually helped to create a vaccine-bolstering buzz that had been lacking in the Arab community, locals said.

Motoya Mahajna, outside a clinic in Umm-al-Fahm, after receiving his vaccine,  on January 3, 2020 (Nathan Jeffay/Times of Israel)

In Umm-al-Fahm, Israel’s largest Arab city, Motiya Mahajna, 41, was pleased to be newly vaccinated — and said he would have come sooner but it was hard to convince his wife. “She is over there, having just been vaccinated,” he said, pointing. “But she only just agreed to come and wouldn’t take the shot last week. She had been nervous.”

Like several other residents, he said that the change in mindset is easy to explain. “Members of the Jewish public have been coming, getting shots, and we see they are okay,” he said. “So now we’re feeling happy about taking it.”

Officially, vaccines are currently reserved for over-60s like Gatt, as well as some others with health conditions and health workers. Those who meet those requirements have been turning up and getting shots immediately, eliminating the need to wait for scheduled appointments at their local clinics. For everyone else, clinic managers have been exercising discretion based on their rapidly expiring supplies — to the dismay of some health officials who have warned it could lead to shortages.

In some Jewish locales, and many Arab areas, doses have been liberally handed out to those under 60. An estimated 100,000 people aged 20 to 40 are among the 1.37 million who have received shots.

For many teachers in particular, a trip to a clinic in an Arab town sidesteps an ongoing battle over vaccination. Their unions are furious that while schools have stayed open, teachers aren’t officially eligible for inoculation yet, and threatening to strike.

“I head the kindergarten at Kibbutz Kfar Glickson, and I’m here not only to get my vaccine but to lead my team by example,” said Ariella Schreiber, outside the Baqa al-Gharbiye clinic. “In institutions like ours we need the vaccine to work with stability, so I found out where it’s available, came here, and really hope others in my team will follow.”

Messaging apps and social media have played a huge role in getting Jewish Israelis to clinics in Arab areas. “We heard via WhatsApp groups that we could come to this clinic,” said Roni Arbel, a member of Kibbutz Ma’anit in his late 40s, who was standing in line for an injection with his partner.

For Arbel, his cultural foray into Baqa al-Gharbiye was an interesting bonus, at a time when lockdown rules mean one can only travel a kilometer from home, apart from necessities, including health needs. “It’s good to be getting the shot, and I like the vibe here,” he said.

Ariella Schreiber at a clinic to receive her vaccine in the Arab Israeli town of Baqa al-Gharbiyye, on January 3, 2020 (Nathan Jeffay/Times of Israel)

The scenes aren’t so harmonious everywhere. Every Israeli citizen chooses which healthcare provider to join, from a choice of four. The fact that vaccine eligibility procedures regarding non-scheduled shots vary from provider to provider, and even from clinic to clinic, and often change day by day, is generating frustration for some people seeking at earlier crack at the vaccine.

In a large hall in Umm-a-Fahm, one room houses a clinic run by Clalit and another room has one run by Maccabi.

In Clalit’s section, adults of all ages were receiving shots, while the Maccabi clerk was strictly turning away under-60s.

One after another, people who had driven from far and wide approached the Maccabi clerk, asked for a shot, and tried to argue and plead their case when she refused to oblige them.

When the clinic closed, which is normally when nurses try to dispense any leftover doses, eight hopefuls gathered around her, jostling for her attention when they mistakenly thought she had spare shots, and walking away dejected when she did not.

“It was really frustrating seeing Clalit members of my age get shots while I couldn’t,” said a Maccabi member in his 50s, who traveled 60 kilometers (37 miles) and waited for almost three hours on the off chance he could get a leftover shot at the end of the day.

“But while it’s annoying, it’s also reassuring being part of a health provider that sticks to the rules on how services are allocated. And anyway, it’s not a totally wasted trip. My family says they sell the best hummus here, and they’re excited that I’m going to get some on my way home.”

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