Israel Prepares to Start Its COVID Vaccination Campaign This Month

HMOs say they are preparing to give first dose of Pfizer vaccine to tens of thousands of people a day, as anticipated FDA approval would pave the way to expediting emergency-use in Israel

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A health care worker holds up Israel's COVID-19 vaccine as its clinical trials begin at Hadassah University Hospital, Ein Karem in Jerusalem, November 1, 2020.
A health care worker holds up Israel's COVID-19 vaccine as its clinical trials begin at Hadassah University Hospital, Ein Karem in Jerusalem, November 1, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

The country’s health maintenance organizations are getting ready to vaccinate tens of thousands of Israelis against the coronavirus every day, beginning as early as later this month.

On Thursday, it was reported that the first delivery of vaccines, from Pfizer, will contain up to 4 million doses, enough for 2 million people. Initial estimates were that the first shipment would contain only 200,000 doses.

In addition, the Health Ministry signed an agreement with Moderna to triple the quantity of vaccines the company will provide Israel in 2021, from 2 million doses to 6 million – enough for 3 million people.

Neither the Pfizer nor the Moderna vaccine has been approved by the U.S. Federal Drug Administration. The agency is scheduled to review Pfizer’s request to approve emergency use of its vaccine Thursday, and to review a similar request by Moderna next week.

Health Ministry officials said the anticipated FDA approval would pave the way to expediting emergency-use approval in Israel, possibly within days. The full, formal approval process will be initiated, a process expected to take several months.

The Health Ministry has begun drawing up directives for administering the vaccine, in cooperation with its manufacturers, so that the inoculation campaign can begin as soon as the vaccines arrive and approval is granted. The ministry’s unit for medical technologies and research and development will base its directives on the companies’ FDA applications.

The Pfizer vaccine will be stored at the logistics centers of SLE, the distribution and logistic company of Teva Pharmaceuticals Industries. SLE has storage freezers operating at minus 70 degrees to minus 80 degrees Celsius in its centers in Shoham and in Kfar Sava. Company officials said they will be able to store millions of doses.

Israel’s four HMOs will be responsible for vaccinating the population. The CEO of Clalit Health Services, Prof. Ehud Davidson, said the campaign is expected to begin in late December or early January. “As the institution insuring 52 percent of the country’s population, this is a significant operation. We’re used to vaccination operations on this scale, but here there are two unique factors. One is the storage conditions and the logistics of vaccination; the second is that each person will require two doses, spaced 21 days apart.”

Clalit will operate hundreds of vaccination centers across the country – in clinics, in designated areas and in drive-in locations. “We’re preparing an orderly plan,” Davidson said. “We plan on giving 40,000 vaccinations a day, including weekends, doing it as quickly as possible.”

Gil Weinstein, deputy director general and head of operations at Leumit Health Services said the HMO is readying vaccination centers throughout the country, mainly in the insurer’s existing clinics. Weinstein said that Leumit will probably have to hire additional nurses for the campaign.

He added that the HMOs are waiting for Health Ministry instructions on using the vaccine and on determining priority for receiving them, in light of the news that millions more doses will be available earlier than expected. Once the priority list is drawn up, Leumit will issue referrals for the vaccine to its members.

“There will be a process of summoning and questioning people in advance, before they get the vaccine. It’s important to know which groups will be first to get it so we can prepare accordingly,” Weinstein said.

On Friday, Israel’s coronavirus information center recommended in its daily report against further easing of the lockdown, and even suggested that some of the measures that had been relaxed should be reimposed “to curb the rise [in cases] and prevent the epidemic from getting out of control.”

The report also said that a day of full lockdown will be needed to undo two days of rise in cases at the current rate.

There were 1,423 new confirmed coronavirus cases on Thursday, bringing the total number of active cases to 11,761. According to the Health Ministry, 2.3 percent of the tests conducted returned positive, marking a slight uptick from Wednesday’s 2.2 percent and Tuesday’s 1.9.

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