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With 1.75 million unvaxxed or not boosted, Israel risks dropping ball – expert

‘We’re not finishing the job,’ laments Prof. Eran Segal; Israel has 650,000 eligible for coronavirus vaccine shots who haven’t received any, and 1.1 million resisting boosters

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

A worker takes a COVID-19 rapid antigen test in Lod, Israel, on October 17, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
A worker takes a COVID-19 rapid antigen test in Lod, Israel, on October 17, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Israel is in danger of repeating its past mistakes and failing to protect itself against the next COVID wave, a top expert has warned, as the current phase of infection wanes.

Prof. Eran Segal said that while Israel appears to have beaten the Delta variant with vaccines, it mustn’t conclude that the current level of inoculation is high enough to protect the nation in the future.

“I’m happy we beat the fourth wave without lockdown, and that’s very satisfying, but I’m concerned we’re leaving too many people who aren’t vaccinated or who don’t have a booster,” said Segal, a coronavirus statistician and computational biologist from the Weizmann Institute of Science, in an interview with The Times of Israel.

“It was a mistake at the end of the third wave and it’ll be a mistake if we do a similar thing at the end of this wave.”

Coronavirus czar Prof Salman Zarka told The Times of Israel in August that the country had dropped the ball on vaccination when Delta hit.

Out of a population of around 9.3 million, Israel has around 7 million people who are eligible for vaccines. This is because there is a large population of under-12s, who can’t currently receive vaccines (though this may soon change for the 5-plus age group).

A woman receives a COVID-19 shot in Jerusalem (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Around 650,000 people who are eligible for vaccines have not received any of the shots, a source of major concern to the medical community.

And while Israel led the world in adopting booster shots, for every four Israelis who rolls up their sleeves for a booster, one declines to do so. Just under 4 million eligible Israelis have taken boosters, but 1.1 million haven’t.

This means that altogether, 1.75 eligible million Israelis have either no vaccine protection, or lack what the government considers optimum vaccine protection.

Eran Segal (courtesy of Eran Segal)

Among leading COVID analysts, there is broad agreement that vaccination rates during the thick of the Delta crisis were good: The number of unvaccinated people fell from 1.4 million when Delta hit to 650,000.

When Israeli introduced booster shots for all in August, before the rest of the world, the population also responded well. Some 4 million people accepted them, though 1.1 million did not.

Nadav Katz, who is responsible for much of the statistical modeling on COVID-19 at Hebrew University, said: “I think the glass is half full. Such a dynamic, namely partial compliance, is expected, and the booster drive actually went better than predicted by most.”

But now Israel is out of the danger zone of an intense COVID wave, will it consolidate its success? Segal is concerned.

“We did very well rolling out boosters quickly, but we’re not finishing the job,” he lamented. “If the 1.1 million people not getting boosters already accepted two shots they’re not antivaxxers, and can be convinced to also take boosters.”

He said that this group of people without boosters puts Israel in danger of a rising R statistic, the metric that tracks infection rates. “At some point their immunity will wane and this could put us at risk of a rising R statistic,” Segal commented.

The number of people who remain unvaccinated tells a story of both success and failure, he believes.

At the start of the fourth wave, there were 1.4 million Israelis who were totally unvaccinated, and a major drive had them flocking to clinics. On the other hand, Segal thinks the fact they were so quickly galvanized shows that the approach before the fourth wave hit was lackadaisical — and suggests to him that a lack of effort is to blame for failure to get the number of unvaccinated below 650,000 now.

“We had 1.4 million unvaccinated at the start of the fourth wave. We then vaccinated 750,000, and the fact we could do this proves that we need to have done a better job at communicating the importance of vaccination so they would have vaccinated earlier. This is exactly what we need to communicate now,” he said.

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