Health Ministry Director-General Prof. Nachman Ash announced Wednesday that he is green lighting his staff's recommendation to vaccinate infants and children aged six months to five years.
The Health Ministry is also expected to discuss in the coming days reinstating the indoor mask mandate and the requirement to wear masks at large gatherings, COVID czar Prof. Salman Zarka said on Wednesday.
According to Ash, the vaccine is especially recommended for children at risk of severe heart disease due to a chronic illness, or who take medication affecting the immune system.
The team's recommendation was made following the vaccine's approval by the FDA. The FDA-approved protocol includes three doses, with the second given three weeks after the first, and the third at least eight weeks after the second dose. Ash noted that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have also been proven effective and safe.
There is widespread support for vaccinating children six months and over among medical professionals. According to experts, the type of vaccine – mRNA (as opposed to live attenuated virus vaccines) – should not conflict with the routine vaccines given at these ages.
Still, professionals don't expect an enthusiastic or immediate response. The fact that the risk of serious illness in children is low causes many parents to avoid vaccinations. The issue of possible "long COVID," of which little is known and research is in its infancy, is also not a factor that motivates parents to vaccinate their children.
Israel has begun the process of purchasing the vaccines for infants and children and health management organizations are expected to complete preparations by the end of next week, ahead of the arrival of the vaccines in the coming weeks. According to the plan, the vaccination of children is expected to begin in early August.
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Addressing the issue of reinstating the indoor mask mandate, Zarka said in a press briefing that "As a professional I believe it is obligatory to return to wearing masks indoors, on public transport and at large events, especially when it doesn't harm economic activity and routine life. This step will be discussed in the coming days."
The remarks come against the background of a continued increase in morbidity and numbers of serious cases. Israel saw a 30 percent increase in the number of seriously-ill patients over the last week, with the number now standing at 376 patients. The daily number of confirmed cases is approaching 14,000. However, the R number – representing the average number of people each coronavirus carrier infects – is falling, and currently stands at 1.06.
Zarka and other senior Health Ministry officials have in recent weeks asked the public to wear masks indoors and on public transportation to protect at-risk populations, without issuing an official order. "Over 90 percent of the seriously ill patients hospitalized are aged 60 and over," Zarka said.
The Health Ministry has so far refrained from reinstating the mask mandate due in part to Israel's unstable political situation, with the ministry's request receiving only a partial response.
The latest increase in cases is attributable to new and faster spreading variants belonging to the omicron family, such as BA5, which is currently responsible for most infections in Israel.
However, the Health Ministry has been closely monitoring a new omicron variant, BA.2.75, that was recently discovered in India. The variant is receiving special attention in countries around the world due to a mutation that improves its ability to evade antibodies, allowing it to adhere better to cells. These factors apparently allow it to more easily infect those who were previously sick with COVID.
The BA.2.75 variant has been discovered in recent days in the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Canada and the U.K. and has been identified as a variant that requires monitoring.