Israel Vaccine Campaign: Fears of Low Demand Give Way to Overwhelmed Centers

Israel ends fourth day of vaccination campaign with 150,000 immunized against the coronavirus ■ Number of vaccination centers are doubling every few days

Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati
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A medical worker gets vaccinated against the COVID-19 coronavirus at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, December 20, 2020.
A medical worker gets vaccinated against the COVID-19 coronavirus at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, December 20, 2020.Credit: MENAHEM KAHANA - AFP
Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

As the first week of the national coronavirus vaccination campaign draws to a close, fears of low demand for inoculation gave way to overwhelmed call centers and complaints from people who did manage to get through of being told the earliest available appointment to receive the first of the two-dose vaccine was two or even three months away.

Israel was expected to end the fourth day of the vaccine campaign that began Sunday with more than 150,000 residents having been immunized. The number of vaccination centers and vaccines administered are doubling every few days. Health Minister Yuli Edelstein announced Wednesday that hospitals will operate vaccine centers beginning next week, further increasing immunization capacity.

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Demand from people aged 60 and over – the first group in the general population to receive the vaccine, after health care workers – has been high. There have been many reports of people trying to pull strings to jump the line, after learning that the earliest appointments available, even for over-60s with health conditions that make them more vulnerable to the virus, will require a wait until February or March. The problem is acute for members of Clalit Health Services, the largest of Israel’s four state-mandated health care providers and the one with the largest proportion of older members. More than 850,000 of the HMO’s 4.6 million members are eligible to receive the vaccine in the first phase of the campaign. Clalit says that in addition to opening new vaccine centers it is planning a telephone hotline to bring forward the immunization appointments of members scheduled for February and March.

Clalit anticipates opening some 40 vaccine centers early next week, for a total of 83 nationwide. That should allow it to immunize about 40,000 of its members a day. Starting Tuesday, the insurer’s public hospitals – Beilinson in Petah Tikva, Carmel in Haifa, Haemek in Afula, Kaplan in Rehovot, Meir in Kfar Sava and Soroka in Be’er Sheva – will administer the vaccine to eligible Clalit members. In addition, many Clalit vaccination sites are expanding their hours, remaining open Friday evening and operating on Saturday from 8 A.M. to 8 P.M. On Wednesday, Clalit launched a special vaccination appointment hotline for members age 75 and up.

Maccabi Healthcare Services is also expanding its vaccine campaign. The HMO anticipated giving some 14,000 injections on Wednesday alone, for a total of some 22,000 since Sunday. From a single vaccination site on Sunday and six on Monday, Maccabi is expected to end the week with 24 immunization centers around the country. Maccabi officials said they expected to reach a daily average of 25,000 vaccinations by next week. Some 280,000 of its members are eligible for the vaccine at this stage (60-plus and high-risk groups), including health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities who will or have been vaccinated as members of these populations.

By next week, some 200 immunization sites should be operating around the country. The HMOs have plans to operate mobile vaccination clinics that will travel to isolated communities and people unable to leave their homes. Approval for the program is pending, due to problems yet to be solved that include a strict prohibition against shaking vaccine vials and other limitations the Health Ministry is trying to sort out. A number still shrouded in mystery is how many vaccine doses were delivered to Israel. The figure is being kept secret, apparently at Pfizer’s request. The ministry isn’t sharing the information with the HMOs, though according to the ministry’s director general, Hezi Levy, the total, estimated at 500,00-600,00 on Sunday, is expected to reach into the millions by the end of this week.

The uncertainty resulting from the ministry’s lack of transparency isn’t sitting well with the HMOs, kupot holim in Hebrew, and other organizations involved in the campaign. “This is a huge screwup. They’re not supplying vaccines to the kupot,” a senior figure in another ministry told confidants. “There aren’t enough. They didn’t bring in enough vaccines. The kupot demand more vaccines but they don’t bring them. The bottleneck isn’t with the kupot but rather with the number of vaccines.” An official in one HMO echoed his remarks. “We don’t know how many vaccines the Health Ministry has in stock, but the message we’re getting is: ‘Open more immunization sites and you’ll get as many as you need.’” Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity. Officials for all four health care providers praised the cooperation and attention they received from the ministry.

Elderly Israelis in the queue to receive a coronavirus vaccine from Israeli Health Maintenance Organization Clalit in Tel Aviv, December 22, 2020Credit: Ofer Vaknin

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