Israel Thinks Out of the Box: How to Convince the Unwilling 50% to Vaccinate

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Refrigerators storing Pfizer's vaccine for COVID-19 in Teva's facilities in Shoham, Israel, December 2020.
Refrigerators storing Pfizer's vaccine for COVID-19 in Teva's facilities in Shoham, Israel, December 2020. Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen

The Health Ministry launched Tuesday a wide-scale public relations campaign to encourage Israelis to vaccinate immediately, as the country prepares for its vaccination rollout slated to begin next week.

The campaign will enlist the help of doctors, scientists, celebrities, politicians and religious leaders.

The ministry will also set up a department of about 10 employees to identify the spread misleading information, as well as a forum of physicians to respond to false claims in real time.   

According to two surveys by the Israel Democracy Institute and the Western Galilee Hospital in Nahariya, one out of two Israelis said they would not take the COVID-19 vaccine once it becomes available.

These surveys, however, were conducted before the vaccines were approved by major international regulators. It is hard to predict how many Israelis will get vaccinated next week.

The Health Ministry has set up five designated public relations teams for the Ultra-Orthodox community, East Jerusalem, Arab communities in the north, Bedouins and Russian speakers.

The ministry is trying to recruit influencers from these groups. For instance, Rabbi Avraham Elimelech Firer, the head of the Ezra LeMarpeh nonprofit organization that provides medical assistance to those in need, said he was asked to “preach and investigate about the vaccine” by rabbis Chaim Kanievsky, Gershon Edelstein and Shalom Cohen, who are major leaders in Haredi society.

Speaking on behalf of the rabbis, Firer said that “everyone who is able to be vaccinated – should do so,” with the exception of those who suffer from severe allergies and young people under the age of 16.

The goal is to flood the public with pictures of prominent figures getting the vaccine. On Monday, hospital executives, health officials, head nurses and even a few dozen mayors will get inoculated in front of cameras.

In addition, senior doctors and health officials will make informational videos for the campaign, focusing on how the vaccine works and its effectiveness and safety. These will include former coronavirus commissioner Prof. Ronni Gamzu, the head of research at Clalit Health Services Prof. Ran Balicer, and the head of the infectious diseases unit at Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer, Prof. Galia Rahav.

Haredi and Arab physicians will also appear in multilingual videos, as well as doctors of Ethiopian origin and from the former Soviet Union.

“We are treating it like a rescue operation for Israel,” Einav Shimron, the deputy director general for communications and international relations at the Health Ministry, told Haaretz. “This is the only way to return to normal in Israel.”

The campaign is expected to cost tens of millions of shekels, and the steering committee for it will include the spokespeople from medical institutions and associations, representatives from Google and Facebook’s Israeli branches, and the CEO of Kayma Labs, which specializes in behavioral economics.

“Facebook has signed on for the public relations effort and they will remove official pages that have fake news and disinformation, and we are in contact with the Justice Ministry’s cyberdepartment on the matter,” said Shimron.

The Health Ministry's first challenge is vaccinating the employees of the health system. According to the Israel Democracy Institute survey, only about 60 percent of health workers plan on being vaccinated immediately. Among those who treat COVID-19 patients, the response was higher. The Israel Medical Association has joined in the public relations campaign directed at doctors, as well as the Israel Pediatric Association and the Israel Association of Family Physicians, which will also hold online conferences this week to answer questions about the vaccine.

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