TEL AVIV, Israel – In the race for herd immunity, Israel has three things that are way ahead of other countries: a relatively small population, adequate supplies of the COVID-19 vaccine, and a central health system that coordinates the complicated logistics of distribution .
These benefits have put Israel at the top of the world’s vaccination map. Over 30 percent of the 9.3 million residents have already received the required two doses. In the United States, the number is about 4 percent, by comparison.
But Israeli officials are finding out that the first phase of the vaccination campaign could be the easy part. The challenge facing you now is to persuade vaccine skeptics, younger Israelis and members of island communities – mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews and some Arab Israelis – to roll up their sleeves and get the shots. Without them, Israel is unlikely to beat the coronavirus pandemic. The process has already been hampered by what many Israelis see as the politicization of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s vaccination campaign.
How Israel fares in this second phase will provide valuable insights for other countries hoping for herd immunity. Many epidemiologists believe that at least 70 percent of the population must be either vaccinated or cured of the disease. If this number is not reached in Israel, with all its advantages, it would be a bad sign for the rest of the world.
“Demand is sure to be slowing,” said Ido Hadari, director of vaccine promotion and government affairs at Maccabi Healthcare Services, Israel’s second largest healthcare provider. “It’s like reaching more than half the mountain: that doesn’t mean we don’t have to sweat to get to the top. And we sweat. “
The Israeli rollout started early, in part due to a dose-for-data agreement with Pfizer designed to help the company investigate the effects of its own vaccine. Netanyahu received the first injection in December 2020.
While the United States struggled to get gunshots when the public called for injections, Israeli health care providers conducted an orderly distribution. Within two months, the campaign helped ease the burden on hospitals by reducing the total number of patients in critical condition and lifting Israel out of its third lockdown. Around 90 percent of Israelis over the age of 60, the primary target of the initial stages, have received at least one initial dose.
But the demand for the recordings has dropped significantly in the last few weeks. TV news showed clips of empty vaccination centers. Although the vaccine is now available to all citizens over the age of 16, daily injections were down nearly 39 percent on February 13 from the January peak, according to Israel’s Ministry of Health. (Israel has not included most of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in its vaccination efforts, although it is widely recognized as an occupying power in these areas and condemned by right-wing groups.)
“I’m scared to death,” said Etti Messika, a 58-year-old hairdresser in Tel Aviv – despite clinical data showing very few people experience serious side effects. “I got all of the vaccinations for my children, but I’m afraid there hasn’t been enough time or trials for this vaccine. I’m afraid they only approved it because of the pandemic. “
Overall, Israel still needs to fully vaccinate another 2.7 million people, or 29 percent of the population. (Just under a third of Israelis are currently not eligible to receive the vaccine because they are too young.)
According to surveys, many younger Israelis feel less vulnerable to COVID-19 and are adopting a wait and see attitude. There have also been lower vaccination rates among Bedouin Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews, which the government has found difficult to achieve with public information campaigns. Israelis in rural working-class cities have also responded in smaller numbers.
The hesitation about vaccinations also persists in some surprising locations, including medical staff in some Israeli hospitals. On February 10, the vaccination rate for staff in major Israeli hospitals was between 43 and 80 percent.
Channel 13 News conducted a poll last December that found that a quarter of Israeli adults would refuse to be vaccinated altogether or wait at least a year, according to Nadav Eyal, chief correspondent for international affairs who conducted the poll supervised. Since Israel has a relatively young population, convincing vaccine skeptics to receive the injection is crucial in order to achieve herd immunity.
“If you calculate it, we need about … 75 to 80 percent vaccination level, but we’re not going to get it anyway because we have it [a large population of] Children here, ”said Eyal. “It’s really important that everyone who can get vaccinated for it.”
Netanyahu hopes the vaccines will help reopen Israel’s economy and increase its chances of re-election. In an interview this week on the 12 Israeli News, he said, “We will be the first to emerge from this. … We’ll be the first in the world because of the millions of vaccines we brought with us and because of a fantastic health system that distributes them. “
But the blending of politics and pandemic has helped fuel conspiracy theories against vaccination. It has also sparked some resistance to the vaccination campaign among Netanyahu’s political opponents, both left and right. Eli Avidar, a Knesset member of the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party and a prominent critic of the government’s pandemic policy, said at a town hall meeting on Saturday that he would not be vaccinated.
“It doesn’t suit me. It is my decision. Everyone is free to make decisions about their bodies, ”he said. “This is not North Korea.”
Nadav Davidovitch, a member of a team of experts advising the Israeli government on COVID-19 and director of the Ben Gurion University School of Public Health, said vaccines had become a means to attack the government.
“It reflects the tensions within Israeli society – distrust of minorities and political instability, ”he said. “Some people think that it is a conspiracy over Netanyahu’s involvement. I think it’s crazy, but I can understand. “
The misinformation is circulating even though data based on Israeli vaccinations show broad effectiveness. A study of 1.2 million people published Sunday by Israel’s largest health care provider, Clalit Health Services, found a 94 percent decrease in symptomatic COVID-19 infections and a 92 percent decrease in serious illnesses among Israelis who had both doses of the Pfizer vaccine – a finding that confirms the company’s clinical studies. Scientists at the Israeli Weizmann Institute found that the number of deaths among Israelis over 60 years of age has fallen by 50 percent since mid-January and among seriously ill patients by 48 percent.
Some officials are offering incentives for people to get vaccinated, including reducing local taxes in suburban Tel Aviv. In the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, local officials are handing out pre-Sabbath meals to people ready to get the shot. Mobile vaccination stations have been set up near popular nature reserves, some of which are aimed at young hikers.
The Israeli cabinet approved a “green passport” program on Monday evening, which restricts access to gyms, cultural events, swimming pools and hotels to those with vaccination certificates. Private companies may be able to restrict access to their offices based on such certificates.
But such measures would certainly face judicial challenges in Israel, and it is not clear how they would stand up to scrutiny. Law and public health officials say governments in Israel and elsewhere need to strike a balance between individual rights and the general national interest in fighting the pandemic.
“I’m against coercion, but then again, you can’t just give complete freedom of choice,” said Davidovitch of the Ben Gurion University Public Health School.
“You can’t just look at individual freedoms and forget that someone who isn’t vaccinated is also violating other people’s freedom. So we have to do something that is proportionate. There is no easy answer. “