Israel is expanding its COVID vaccine booster campaign to people aged 50 and up, the Health Ministry announced Friday, two weeks after a decision to administer a third shot for those over 60 – making Israel the first country to provide boosters for parts of its population.
The ministry accepted its advisory panel's recommendation, made on Thursday, to authorize a third vaccine dose for younger age groups, as well as health workers, people with weak immune systems and prisoners and prison staff, the ministry's director-general, Prof. Nachman Ash, said.
The decision went into immediate effect, but the ministry said it was still working on specific regulations for some groups now included in the booster shot campaign.
Later on Friday, Israel's Health Ministry ordered to administer the third dose of the vaccine to health workers aged 30 and older who come into contact with patients as well as prison staff and prisoners aged 40 and older if at least five months have passed since both groups received the second dose.
Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, who is 56 years old, received his third dose on Friday morning. At Meir Hospital in Kfar Sava, he said "we have indications" that the booster shot is both safe and effective.
"We're in a race against the pandemic, and the most effective tool at our disposal in inoculation," he said, urging Israelis to get vaccinated "as soon as possible."
Israel's largest health maintenance organization, Clalit, said before the recommendation was announced that it would begin offering the shots to those over 50 next week. In a statement, Clalit said that scheduling appointments for the third dose would be possible starting Friday on its website.
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On Friday, it was joined by two other major health care providers, Maccabi and Leumit.
The recommendation is not binding, and the Health Ministry still has to make a decision on expanding the booster shot campaign. Nearly 100 experts took part in the debate over expanding the booster shot drive, with a majority supporting the move and some suggesting that the minimum age could be brought down to 40. Booster shots have been given to 754,000 people so far.
Earlier on Thursday, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett instructed health maintenance organizations to prepare to roll out third vaccines for different age groups starting next week.
Because Israel is at an advanced stage in the standard vaccination campaign, any expansion is a pioneering step. Receiving the third dose, although a calculated and reasonable risk according to many experts, is not yet based on an orderly trial protocol and is somewhat of a gamble, though more in terms of how effective it is, rather than if it is safe.
According to the Health Ministry, over 700,000 people have gotten the booster dose. This week, it was reported that fewer than 50 of them have reported side effects. The reported symptoms (pain at the injection site, fever, and nausea) were mild and passed quickly.
Israel reported 5,946 new coronavirus cases on Wednesday according to data published by the Health Ministry on Thursday, the day after Israel approved tightening proof of immunity and gathering restrictions as the delta variant continues to spread nationwide.
According to the ministry, the number of serious coronavirus cases in Israel topped Tuesday's six-month high, with 421 cases. There are currently 42,203 active coronavirus cases in Israel.
The rate of positive coronavirus tests rose from Tuesday's figure of 4.59 percent to 4.62 percent on Wednesday.
More than 5.8 million Israelis have received their first vaccine; 5.4 million have received their second vaccine. 716,618 Israelis have received their third coronavirus vaccine.
On Wednesday, Israel approved expanding the Green Pass proof of immunity program to apply to Israelis aged three and up, as well as limiting gatherings. The new restrictions will go into effect next Wednesday.