As COVID-19 Wanes in Israel, Focus Shifts to Vaccinating Younger Teens

Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati
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A coronavirus vaccination center in Jerusalem last month.
A coronavirus vaccination center in Jerusalem last month.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

Concern that the full reopening of the Israeli economy and of the country’s schools would lead to a new outbreak of the coronavirus has proven unwarranted. Though a few isolated outbreaks have been reported at schools, the incidence of the virus around the country demonstrates that the pandemic is clearly on the wane.

On Sunday, just 77 Israelis tested positive for the virus. Only 0.3% of those tested for COVID-19 tested positive and the R factor, reflecting the average number of people infected by the average infected individual, is 0.79, which indicates that cases are on the decline. More than six million Israelis are considered protected against the virus – the 5.4 million who have been vaccinated, in addition to another 840,000 who have recovered from the illness, including 150,000 who have recovered and have now received a single dose of the vaccine, in accordance with the latest recommendations.

But some 800,000 Israelis eligible for the vaccine have yet to be inoculated, 218,000 of whom are 50 or older.

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In light of the current data, the Health Ministry is preparing to further ease health restrictions on May 6, including allowing indoor entertainment facilities to reopen, along with swimming pools and fitness centers, subject to “purple badge” restrictions, which allow admittance to children too young to be vaccinated.

In a related development, Pfizer hopes to receive U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval to vaccinate 12 to 15-year-olds within a few weeks. In Israel, there are 600,000 young people in that age range. 

“Children are entitled to the same protection as adults. We don’t want to see children hospitalized or suffering from cardiac complications,” said Prof. Zachi Grossman, the chairman of the Israel Pediatric Association.

Ironically, the data showing that the virus is on the decline in Israel may actually lead some parents to decide that their children should not be vaccinated.

At the end of March, Pfizer said the vaccine was found to be 100 percent safe and effective in a clinical trial of 2,260 young people, half of whom received the vaccine, and no severe side effects were reported. So far about 900 12 to 15-year-olds in Israel have already been vaccinated after receiving special permission from the ministry due to health conditions that put them at greater risk from the disease. No unusual side effects were reported among those vaccinated children either.

Last week Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Israel would be purchasing 16 million more doses of vaccine from Pfizer and Moderna and that he expected approval to vaccinate children younger than 16 as well.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week announcing the purchase of 16 million additional vaccine doses.Credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO

In conversations with officials at the Health Ministry, they didn’t express a sense of urgency about expanding the vaccine campaign to this younger age group. They also indicated that the pace of vaccination campaign would not be as rushed as the earlier efforts. “First of all, we’re waiting for FDA approval,” a senior ministry official noted.

Some officials said they anticipate that the vaccine campaign for the 12 to 15 age group would dispense with special vaccine centers and that the inoculation process would take longer than previously.

“We are awaiting safety verification for the vaccine” for the younger age group “and it will only be approved by Israel after an in-depth examination,” said Dr. Michal Stein, director of the infectious disease unit at Hillel Yaffeh Medical Center, who heads a team of experts on pediatric infectious disease. “It doesn’t appear that we need to conduct a rushed vaccination campaign. After the vaccine is approved for [patients from 12 to 15], parents and young people will make their own decisions.”

The vaccine is intended first and foremost to protect these young people from significant illness, “which is of course much less widespread than for older people, but it definitely exists, and it’s very desirable to avoid it,” she said.

The number of those vaccinated has to be expanded among the population of the country, Stein added. “What’s going on in Israel is a bubble compared to the rest of the world and the situation is liable to change. Just a variant against which the vaccine is less effective and which may be more virulent would be enough for us to see another wave of infection. There are still hundreds of thousands who have chosen not to be vaccinated and even among those vaccinated, one in 20 could become infected and some of them will even become seriously ill. The larger the proportion of people who are vaccinated, the smaller the chances that this would happen.”

“The vaccine has already been made available to Israeli 16 to 18-year-olds and from an immunological standpoint, there’s no substantive difference between the ages 12 and 17,” Stein added.

Prof. Grossman of the Israel Pediatric Association believes that prevailing situation with the virus in the country shouldn’t be a decisive factor in parents’ decision as to whether or not to get their children vaccinated. “It’s true that the national infection rate has dropped fantastically, but there’s still infection out there caused by contact with unvaccinated people from other places and now we’re seeing the outbreaks at schools.”

Grossman said that “when it comes to infectious disease, the vaccine isn’t assessed just at a specific point in time but over the years. We could recommend that people quit getting inoculated against measles since we don’t see anyone coming down with it. But infectious diseases don’t disappear, and anywhere you see a drop in inoculations, they break out again. We are apparently very close to herd immunity, but we see that the world is a source of many mutations and the moment the airport reopens [more extensively], there is concern that they may reach us.”

Hagai Levine, an epidemiology professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the former chairman of the Israel Association of Public Health Physicians, believes that Israel should approve use of the coronavirus vaccine for the 12 to 15 age group as soon as it is approved in the United States. “As I see it, since it’s a pandemic, our chances of being infected at some point or another are great. I will have my 14-year-old son vaccinated.”

Prof. Hagai Levine at a Knesset committee hearing last year.Credit: Shmulik Grossman/Knesset Spokesperson's Office

At the same time, Levine warned against forcing parents to vaccinate children by imposing restrictions on those who are not vaccinated. “The situation today is that children are excluded from public spaces. They cannot sleep out in the open on field trips, for example. It’s not right to prevent activity in the open air, and there’s no reason to link it to being vaccinated.”

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