At the main branch of the Leumit Health Care HMO in downtown Tel Aviv, all roads lead to the first floor, where large signs with arrows point downward to the place where coronavirus vaccines are being administered.
After health care workers were vaccinated on Sunday with great fanfare, on Monday the real campaign got underway, with the vaccination of older people and those with underlying conditions that put them at risk of serious illness if they contract the coronavirus.
At 8 A.M., the waiting room was full, but not overcrowded. Hagit Eisenberg, a customer service representative recruited to act as the gatekeeper for the vaccination rooms, was pretty satisfied; there had been a lot of pressure Sunday, she said, but Monday looked calmer and more routine. On the table in front of her sits a list of some 200 people scheduled to be vaccinated, the maximum daily limit for Monday. The previous day, about 300 people had been vaccinated, mostly health care workers but also others who had been summoned but for whom there turned out not to be enough doses on hand for them.
Chava, an administrative worker at the HMO, was waiting patiently for her turn. “Yesterday it was crowded, I preferred to wait,” she said. “We waited nine months for the vaccine, what’s another day?” She’s eagerly anticipating receiving a second dose in another 21 days, primarily, she says, so she can finally hug her three small grandchildren.
Shosh and Meir Shilo left the vaccination room in high spirits. Both knew they’d get vaccinated as soon as they could. “It’s clear to us that there’s no other way to eliminate the pandemic,” said Shosh, 69. People her age can still remember the polio epidemic, she said, “So we know that vaccination is the only way.”
After 15 minutes – the required wait after the shot, to make sure there are no immediate side effects – the couple left, but not before wishing everyone still waiting on line the best of health.
Moshe Mosko, Leumit’s spokesman, is walking around like a groom at his wedding. He’s got a lot of work to do, as media team after media team tries to get into the small waiting room. But for the nurses administering the injections, it’s just another day of hard work. “Is someone else coming now or can I go to the bathroom for a second?” one of the nurses asks Eisenberg. “You have a few minutes, go now,” she replies.
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When she returned, the next person was waiting, Avishay Ben-David, a resident of Ramat Hasharon. He had taken his number and was prepared for a long wait, but hadn’t even sat down when he was called to the vaccination room. “So fast? Unacceptable!” he said, laughing. This had totally been his lucky day; he didn’t even have to wait endlessly on hold to make an appointment like thousands of others did; he just called and got through right away.
Amnon and Racheli Frank had to wait 20 minutes on hold, but didn’t consider that a big deal. They were happy to be vaccinated but weren’t fantasizing about a quick return to routine life. “We’ll continue to be careful even after the second dose,” Racheli said. “We are older people with underlying illnesses. First let’s see that the vaccine works.” They, too, especially missed being able to hug their grandchildren.
“A grandchild without a hug is half a grandchild,” said Amnon. “We haven’t hugged them since March.”
A flood of patients
Oded Shtemer, central district director for Leumit, was pleased that the vaccines had arrived, but stresses that this doesn’t mean the pandemic is over. “We have a flood of patients, we dealt this week with a record number of requests for coronavirus tests,” he says. The vaccination program is a complex logistical operation, at a time when all medical workers are still busy with their daily tasks and following up on coronavirus patients recovering at home.
The HMOs don’t know how many vaccines will be made available by the Health Ministry. Leumit plans to schedule appointments for five day intervals, depending on the number of vaccines it receives, That’s the period during which the vaccines can be used from the time they are taken out of the freezer. Health Ministry Director-General Prof. Chezi Levy said there was no reason to be concerned about a shortage of vaccines. “We will vaccinate everyone, there’s nothing to worry about,” he said. Will the HMOs be able to deal with the pressure? It’s too early to know.
A big question mark is how the ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) population will respond. They make up 20 percent of Leumit’s members in the central district. “A week ago there were posters in Bnei Brak against the vaccine, but the mayor came here yesterday to be vaccinated and to encourage other residents to do so,” Shtemer said. The level of response will become clearer on Wednesday, when Leumit opens vaccination stations in Bnei Brak, as well as other locations around the country.
Few Bedouin among vaccine recipients in Negev town
In the waiting room of the Clalit Health Services HMO clinic in the Bedouin town of Rahat sat Araleh, Tova and Shahar, among 170 people vaccinated there on Monday. Yes, they are Jewish, like most of the others who showed up. “We advertised in Arabic, we are trying to persuade the local population to get vaccinated,” said the administrative director of the clinic. But if the first day of the campaign is an indication, it’s been a failure. “Ninety percent of those vaccinated today were from the Jewish community,” she acknowledges, and expresses a hope that the trend will change.
The medical teams couldn’t hide their excitement when the vaccine ampules arrived. Akif Alhouzeil, 60, a grandfather and retired police officer, was among the first to get the shot. “It’s been a very hard year,” he says, just before baring his arm for the needle. “I came to get the vaccine to finish with it already. For me, today is a really exciting day, I feel as if I can breathe again.”
Adnan Alubara, 60, a Rahat resident, added, “I’ve been under curfew for almost a year; I left the house only for very urgent matters.” He says he was a little afraid. “People scared me. Everyone said, “don’t be one of the first. But I stood my ground. I want this to be over already.”
Alhouzeil says there had been pressure in Rahat not to be vaccinated, which he says stems from a lack of awareness and encouragement by local leaders. As a result, there were still appointments available in the clinic in the morning. Many of those who did show up for a vaccine cited personal reasons for doing so.
“The first thing I’m going to do is fly abroad,” says Sa’id Abu Siam, with a broad smile, seconds after the syringe came out of his arm. “This past year has been bad. Right now I feel amazing, there’s relief and joy. I hope that we’ll finally finish with the coronavirus.”