Israel's health minister announced on Monday a new effort in parts of the country where vaccination rates for the first and second doses of the COVID vaccine are low, pointing to figures that show a clear correlation between economic status and willingness to get inoculated.
Meanwhile, Israel has recorded its lowest infection rate since early June, but serious coronavirus cases are still climbing and now stand at 670, the highest such figure in three months.
During a visit in the Arab town of Kafr Qasem, northeast of Tel Aviv, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz said, "I’m not going to give up on these weaker groups," adding that the way to avoid stricter restrictions or a possible return to nationwide lockdown would be to get more people vaccinated.
The most vaccinated towns in the country are the upscale Tel Aviv suburbs of Kfar Shmryahu and Savyon. The least vaccinated are the southern Bedouin communities of Kseifa and Hura.
The COVID-19 infection rate, known as the R number – the average number of people each coronavirus carrier infects – dropped to 1.14, the lowest reported since early June, having waned significantly since peaking at 2.44 in mid-June. This means that while the epidemic is still spreading in Israel and cases are rising, the rate is slowing down.
Israel reported 6,467 new COVID cases on Monday, and the highest rate of positive coronavirus tests since early March.
The rate of positive tests climbed from Saturday’s figure of 5.42 percent to 6.31 percent on Monday. There are currently 670 patients in serious condition, 162 of whom are in critical condition, including 108 patients on ventilators. To date, 6,830 people have died with COVID.
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Since the pandemic began, 994,615 Israelis have been diagnosed with coronavirus (roughly 10.8 percent of the population) and 919,984 of them have recovered.
Less than a month after Israel became the first country to officially launch a booster campaign, almost 1.5 million Israelis have received their third shot of the COVID vaccine.
On Monday, the Health Ministry's Director-General Nachman Ash told Channel 13 News that Israel would "most probably" expand eligibility for a booster shot to include people aged 30 and up, down from the current 40.
"We can see the operation is going well," he said. "We're vaccinating the older population, and we can take the age down. There are enough vaccines."
According to the latest Health Ministry figures, more than 60 percent of those aged 60 and up have received their third shot. These figures stand at 60 percent among Israelis ages 60-69, 75.8 percent among Israelis ages 70-79, 71.6 percent among Israelis ages 80-89, and 66.2 percent among Israelis ages 90 and up. Some 37.2 percent of Israelis among the ages of 50 and 59 have received the third dose.
If the number of unvaccinated people is reduced, it will transform the situation, Horowitz said, calling it "a tiebreaker." The right way, and perhaps the only way, to avoid a more serious situation that would require more drastic measures is to also quickly get 3 million people vaccinated with a third dose, he added.
As part of the new initiative, mobile vaccination vans from the Health Ministry and Magen David Adom emergency medical organization will be dispatched in the coming weeks to neighborhoods and communities across the country.
On Sunday night, Israel's cabinet decided that the country would reopen its schools on September 1, despite fears that doing so will cause coronavirus cases to surge.
Both elementary and high schools will open on September 1, as they were originally expected to, the cabinet decided. Additionally, schools will be allowed to administer vaccinations during school hours, subject to parental approval, circumventing Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton who had previously voiced concern over in-school vaccinations.
In comments on 103FM radio on Monday, Health Ministry chief Ash said that teachers who are not vaccinated will be required to be tested once or twice a week if they are to come to school. The ministry, he said, will need to set priorities as to which schools get the vaccine first.
In another development, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave its full approval on Monday for the COVID vaccine developed by Pfizer and its partner, BioNTech, for patients 16 and over. This follows emergency basis use that the agency had early cleared for patients 12 and over.