Israel the fastest vaccinating country in attempt to stem a third wave disaster

They passed half a million Covid-19 vaccinations just 10 days after starting, overtaking Britain


On Tuesday, Israel announced that it had passed the half-a-million mark of Covid-19 vaccinations, 10 days after starting its drive. Over five percent of the entire Israeli population have received their first jab of the Pfizer vaccine and the country has the highest proportion of coronavirus inoculations anywhere in the world (leapfrogging over Britain, which was the first country to embark on nationwide vaccinations and is now in the third place, after Bahrain).

At this rate, Israel is on track to vaccinate half its population by mid-March and perhaps become the first country in the world to actually achieve “herd immunity”. But that is only part of the picture.

The vaccination drive came simultaneously with another world first — Israel’s third nationwide coronavirus lockdown. On Sunday evening, new restrictions came in to place. All businesses serving the public, with the exception of shops selling food and vital supplies, were ordered to close and civilians limited to a 1000-metre radius from their homes.

The lockdown was decided on as the third wave spiralled out of control. On Monday, the same day that 100,000 Israelis were inoculated, there were 5815 new cases of coronavirus, the highest daily rate in four months. The infections are partly due to people gathering for parties and family celebrations on Channukah and the thousands of tourists returning from countries abroad with high infection rates. There’s also the possibility that some of the third wave is caused by the new mutation which was first detected in Britain.

As infections rise so do hospitalisations. Hospitals across Israel were directed to re-open emergency coronavirus wards in preparation for hundreds of expected severe cases. In some areas, including Jerusalem, hospitals were already overwhelmed and patients have been transferred to other cities. In his directive to all hospitals, the health ministry’s director-general Dr Hezi Levi wrote that “elective treatment will take place only in regard of the hospital’s capabilities to open additional coronavirus wards, including the need for trained staff including anaesthesiologists, to deal with complex cases.”

But Dr Levi admitted this week that the new lockdown was not being observed by the public. In an interview in his ministry office in Jerusalem, he was exasperated as he told how just across the road he could hear every night music from two wedding venues that continued to operate. The government’s decision had scant relation to reality on the streets. Israel’s roads remained as congested as usual and mayors in different parts of the country announced they would not be enforcing the closure on restaurants and schools would remain open.

Under pressure from the Knesset Law Committee which has to confirm all the new restrictions, the government backed down and allowed restaurants to re-open for takeaways. Another decision which has been rescinded is the order sending all arrivals to Ben Gurion Airport for compulsory quarantine in “Coronavirus hotels.” Rioting by incarcerated guests at the hotels led the cabinet to abandon that plan as well.

Public health officials are openly admitting that this time around, the lockdown is unlikely to work. The public simply isn’t abiding by it. And matters among the ultra-Orthodox community, which has defied the government keeping its synagogues and Yeshivas open as usual, are even worse. According to the Health Ministry’s data, the death-rate among ultra-Orthodox Jews over the age of 65 is three-and-a-half times that among secular Israelis.

Two months ago, high hopes were pinned to the new contact-tracing centre opened by the IDF which was supposed to be capable of carrying out three thousand epidemiological investigations a day. But while the centre is up and running, many Israelis are simply refusing to cooperate with the soldier-tracers.

The last remaining hope is the vaccinations. Here at least, Israel can fall back on a relatively efficient public health system. For historical and political reasons, Israel does not have one NHS but a universal health insurance system run by four separate publicly-owned health-funds which compete for members and government funding. Each fund has been allocated hundreds of thousands of doses and has set up regional vaccination centres at hospitals and large clinics and are now vying to work faster than their competitors at inoculating their members.

More by result of historic rivalries than design, and despite the government’s failings, Israel now has an ideal framework for carrying out nationwide vaccination.


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