The message emanating every morning from Health Minister Yuli Edelstein’s bureau is to maintain the battle spirit and vaccination momentum. Tuesday morning it was: “We’ll vanquish the virus because we’re waging the best vaccination campaign the world.”
The minister has been meticulously issuing similarly spirited messages every morning for the last 42 days, ever since the national vaccination campaign began with a storm. The data attached to these messages is less consistent. It points to the fact that the campaign, labeled “lending a shoulder,” is losing momentum and has apparently entered a new phase, a more complex and challenging one.
It must be said that the campaign could still be a source of national pride for those seeking it. More importantly, it’s providing immunity from the virus to millions of Israelis, mainly among older people and people at-risk. Some 3.2 million Israelis have been inoculated so far, with 1.4 million of these already eligible to receive a certificate of vaccination, one week after receiving the second dose.
However, over the last week the daily number of people receiving the vaccine has dropped by almost half. Against the backdrop of completion of the vaccination among the critical mass of people who are 60 or older, a very large percentage of whom have been inoculated, recent days have exposed problematic issues and locations. This includes teachers, Arab and Bedouin populations and the ultra-Orthodox, where compliance with the call to get vaccinated has been lower than in the general population.
On Monday, 117,000 Israelis got the vaccine, 84,000 of them with the second dose. A week earlier, this number stood at 226,000, 147,000 of whom were getting the second dose and 79,000 receiving the first dose. Starting last Thursday, people who are over 35 or older could get the vaccine. The expectation was that the expansion of the eligible age group would allow a shift to a higher gear, or at least the maintaining of a rate of over 200,000 people being vaccinated daily.
This is not happening. On the contrary, it seems the campaign is folding in on itself, held up by a second round of vaccinations. The sense in the health system is that a vaccine, which until recently led many Israelis to scour the country at night and wait in line for hours, has lost its attractiveness. Reports by people coming to be vaccinated and by medical personnel point to sparse presence at vaccination centers. The health maintenance organizations are also reporting a slowdown.
The slowdown in vaccination, as well as a component of uncertainty regarding the effectiveness of the vaccine against various mutations, mainly the South African one, could foil the efforts and plans to reach a goal of 5 million Israelis holding those certificates by April. A prolonging of the campaign and a drop in compliance could lead to various solutions and steps, depending on the severity of the situation. This may include information campaigns and incentives (such as exemption from isolation), or, in extreme cases, the imposing of various sanctions.
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The number of people in the 35-39 age group who could start getting inoculated last Thursday and who have already done so is 376,000, or 32 percent of this age cohort. This appears to be an impressive figure, but it turns out that 289,000 people in this group (24 percent of this age group) had received the first dose, whether due to their jobs or by benefiting from spare doses. In fact, only 87,000 new people in this age group have been vaccinated since last Thursday, a small addition to the total population of the inoculated, half of whom are already receiving their second dose.
According to sources at the health maintenance organizations, the last week has seen a significant slowdown, not just among 35-to 40-year-olds, but also of older people. Among those aged 40 to 49, 47 percent had been vaccinated by last week. This number is currently 53 percent, meaning an addition of only 70,000 in a week. Among the 50-59 age group, the current rate of those inoculated is 66 percent, compared to 62 percent a week ago, an increase of only 33,000.
“We see a slowdown in all groups,” says a Clalit HMO official to Haaretz. “At the beginning of the drive, it was clear that people who were 60 or older would set the tone, which is a good thing. There was impressive compliance with people flooding vaccination centers. This had an impact on the general public, contributing to the sense that one should get vaccinated. Since then, as we go down in age groups, compliance is dwindling.” According to pre-set appointments, it seems that this trend is not going to change in the coming days.
The first vaccination wave, which saw record compliance, put away concerns from before the campaign that compliance would be low. But now, the challenge of getting people to comply has resurfaced. The Health Ministry is thus expected to disseminate more information, both among specific populations where compliance is low, and among younger people who will soon be called on to get vaccinated.
Estimates in the health system regarding the low compliance are that young people view the risks as small, making do with their older family members getting the vaccine. They may also shy away from waiting in line over the weekend. “There is a psychological element that wasn’t present before. The high accessibility of the vaccine and the feeling that this is not a scarce resource affects the sense of urgency. People tell themselves that they can wait and do it later,” says one HMO official.