Israeli Health Ministry Dispute With Emergency Services Delays COVID Vaccine for Thousands of Palestinians

Magen David Adom played key role in vaccinating East Jerusalem residents in recent months, but Israel's Health Ministry has stopped working with organization over financial dispute

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A Palestinian man is helped by his son as he receives a vaccination against the coronavirus as Israel continues its national vaccination drive, in East Jerusalem late last year
A Palestinian man is helped by his son as he receives a vaccination against the coronavirus as Israel continues its national vaccination drive, in East Jerusalem late last yearCredit: Ammar Awad/ REUTERS

Two months ago, the Jerusalem municipality, the Home Front Command and the Health Ministry noticed that the rate of vaccination in East Jerusalem was significantly lower than in the rest of the country.

In early January, only 20 percent of those 60 and older had been vaccinated, compared with 70 percent in the overall population. To address the problem, MDA was enlisted to set up vaccination centers in the different neighborhoods. Every day, at least one center was opened in the city’s Palestinian neighborhoods, while the Home Front Command and the municipality launched a social media campaign to promote vaccination.

The operation was a success – more than 25,000 people were vaccinated at these centers and rate of eligible people in East Jerusalem who received the first dose of the vaccine rose to 70 percent. But two weeks ago, MDA and the Health Ministry got into a financial dispute and, as a result, last week MDA abruptly ceased administering the vaccines.

The Health ministry transferred responsibility for the vaccines to the Novolog Health Care Group, in a no-bid contract. The ministry is expected to pay Novolog four million shekels to complete the vaccination operation. But since the operation changed hands, local officials said the pace has slowed drastically and Novolog is struggling to keep up with demand.

In recent days, hundreds of residents have contacted MDA, the Home Front Command and the municipality, asking to be vaccinated – many having received the first dose more than three weeks ago. Many were told they would have to wait since there are no vaccines currently available in East Jerusalem. A Health Ministry official says he believes there are thousands who received the first dose of the vaccine more than three weeks ago and have yet to receive the second. However, Pfizer’s studies indicate that the level of protection is not affected if the second dose is received within six weeks of the first one.

Data collected by the municipality shows a sharp drop in the number of people in East Jerusalem getting vaccinated in the last days, from a daily average of over 2,000 two weeks ago to fewer than 1,000 in the past week. But on Monday, Novolog reportedly conducted a successful vaccine operation at the Shuafat checkpoint in which 800 people were inoculated.

MDA is also part of the vaccine operation arranged by the Civil Administration for Palestinian laborers who work in Israel. To date, 120,000 workers have received the first dose. After Passover, an operation will begin to give these workers the second dose. The Palestinians were given the Moderna vaccine, with which the second dose is given after four weeks and not three weeks as with the Pfizer vaccine.

The IDF has pledged that the dispute between MDA and the Health Ministry will not affect the vaccination operation. The Health Ministry says: “The ministry took upon itself to vaccinate Palestinians and people in East Jerusalem without residency status. Everyone who was vaccinated with the first dose will be vaccinated on time with the second dose, under the responsibility of the Health Ministry and the company that is selected by the Health Ministry, with no harm to the people being vaccinated.”