With vaccination rates rising again, Israel set to pass 4 million first doses

Health minister says over 2,600,000 have received both shots, as cabinet agrees certain venues will only be open to the inoculated and recovered

A man receives a Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine during an event to encourage the vaccination of young Israelis at a vaccination center in Holon, Feb. 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
A man receives a Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine during an event to encourage the vaccination of young Israelis at a vaccination center in Holon, Feb. 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said Tuesday morning that vaccination rates were rising, with Israel expected to pass the landmark later in the day of four million people receiving at least one dose of the inoculation.

“Today we will pass the threshold of four million vaccinated in Israel, of whom 2,612,000 also received the second vaccine,” Edelstein said. “And we continue to increase the daily number of vaccines [administered] — yesterday, 156,000 people were vaccinated.

“Anyone who does not get vaccinated will be left behind. Yesterday the coronavirus cabinet confirmed the position of the Health Ministry that only the vaccinated and those who have recovered [from the virus] can enjoy gyms and leisure events. Go get vaccinated!” Edelstein said.

The issue of vaccine hesitancy and skepticism has been a concern, with Israel’s world-leading inoculation campaign slowing in recent weeks. But rates were on the rise again this week as ministers approved measures to reopen certain venues and events only to those who have been vaccinated or previously contracted the virus.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein at a press conference in Jerusalem on February 10, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The reluctance has been most pronounced among Israelis below the age of 50, including among teaching staff. The government is seeking to pass a bill that will require all workers who have a high exposure to the public to be vaccinated, or have a virus test every two days.

There have also been a number of other initiatives to encourage people to get vaccinated, including free food, inoculations on forest trails and businesses offering incentives for employees to go and get the shot.

Meanwhile the Health Ministry set up an operational headquarters with tech-savvy employees to scour the internet in search of viral fake news that could potentially cause damage to Israel’s coronavirus vaccination drive.

Over 730,000 people in Israel have been diagnosed with the virus and are not currently eligible to get vaccinated.

People work at a digital task force to counter ‘fake news’ on the internet, in the Health Ministry office near Tel Aviv, Feb. 14, 2021 (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

According to the latest Health Ministry figures on Tuesday morning, 5,138 new coronavirus cases were confirmed Sunday, which along with another 1,049 since midnight brought the number of cases since the pandemic began to 732,040.

Of the 55,180 active cases, there were 962 patients in serious condition, including 301 on ventilators.

The death toll stood at 5,423, with 17 fatalities recorded overnight.

The ministry said 70,839 people were tested for coronavirus on Monday, with 7.5 percent of tests coming back positive.

A mother and daughter arrive at school in the costal city of Ashkelon, Israel, Feb. 11, 2021 (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

A military task force said Tuesday morning that Israel’s transmission rate was continuing to slow as the basic reproduction number (the R-number), the number of people who caught the virus from each infected person, stood at 0.82.

Officials have previously set a transmission rate of 0.8 as the level at which restrictions can be eased.

Cabinet ministers on Monday approved the reopening of stores, gyms, hotels, and other venues from Sunday, in a major easing of sweeping lockdown measures meant to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Street-front shops, malls, markets, museums, and libraries will be open to all Israelis. But only those who have been vaccinated or have recovered from COVID-19 will be able to use gyms, enter sporting and culture events, hotels, and swimming pools. They will have to bring proof in a so-called “green card” scheme.

The high-level coronavirus cabinet also okayed the reopening of synagogues for the Purim holiday late next week.

Israelis exercise at the Holmes Place gym and country club in Modiin on July 14, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Coronavirus czar Nachman Ash said anybody gaining unauthorized access to restricted areas and events will be subject to harsh punishment. An app and barcoded certificates are being set up, which Israelis will be able to download to show that they have been vaccinated or have recovered from COVID-19, he said.

The decision marks a major move toward normalcy during the ongoing national vaccination drive. Many of the institutions set to open Sunday have been shuttered for the better part of the past year due to the pandemic.

Synagogues and other houses of worship will be permitted to reopen on Friday, with attendance limited to 10 people indoors and 20 outside.

The coronavirus cabinet barred festivities and other gatherings over Purim next weekend, while restricting attendance at holiday meals to immediate family members. Health officials have expressed concern that festive gatherings will spark another wave of contagion. Last year’s Purim is believed to have been a major contributor to Israel’s first wave of infections.

Students in grades 5-6 and 11-12 in “green” and “yellow” municipalities will be allowed to return to in-person learning on Sunday. Ministers will convene again later in the week to decide about allowing additional grades to get back to the classroom.

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