The nationwide COVID-19 vaccination drive for children ages 5-11 gets underway Tuesday, nine days after the Health Ministry approved the vaccine for this age group.
In the first 24 hours after the country’s four health care providers began scheduling appointments for children, Sunday evening, about 25,000 slots were filled. That represents 2.5 percent of the 1 million children in this age group who are eligible to receive the vaccine now (in addition to about 224,000 children who have recovered from a coronavirus infection).
The vaccine drive comes as the reproduction or R number, which measures how many people each infected person passes the virus on to, rose to 1.04. A number greater than 1 means the decline in the spread of infection has been halted.
Health Ministry officials are concerned about the change in the trend but they don’t want to convey unnecessary panic to the public, especially during the vaccination drive, so that parents have some time to decide whether to vaccinate their children. On the other hand, the rise in the R number, with mass Hanukkah events in the offing, have officials worried. They have held numerous meetings about the vaccination drive and the R rate, and the health care providers are under a lot of pressure.
“We are not in a place of management for targets. Parents have a week or two to think about” whether or not they want to have their children in the age bracket vaccinated, Israel’s coronavirus czar Prof. Salman Zarka told members of the media in a news conference Monday.
“Nearly 3 million children have been vaccinated in the United States. We see an effective vaccine, with mainly localized side effects. Experience shows that it’s worth it to be vaccinated,” he added.
Officially, the Health Ministry has not set goals and timetables, but to professionals at the various meetings the goal is clear: Half a million children vaccinated with the first dose of the vaccine by the end of December. It’s not yet clear whether that’s a realistic target.
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The ministry’s chief of public health, Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, said this week that according to Health Ministry surveys, 40 to 50 percent of parents of children ages 5-11 plan to have their children vaccinated. In the weeks to come major efforts will be made to promote vaccination of children, including public information campaigns and messages and reminders from the health maintenance organizations. Clinics and vaccine centers will increase their hours, with some staying open on weekends. Mobile vaccine centers will bring the vaccines to remote communities, and at some point vaccinations are also expected to be given at schools, as was the case in vaccinations for children ages 12-15.
In terms of public information, the ministry will focus on pediatricians as the front-line contact with patients. Hundreds of doctors are now participating in webinars to receive information and ask questions.
Children and teens have been the main source of infections in recent weeks. Of the 452 persons in Israel who tested positive for the coronavirus Monday, 299 were 19 or younger.
Since the vaccine was made available to children ages 12-15, at the end of June, 310,000 have been vaccinated and 222,000 (39 percent) have not. Among teens ages 16-18, 20 percent (85,000) have not yet been vaccinated. There are currently about 670,000 people eligible for the shot who have not taken it (not including children aged 5-11), and about 1 million more who have not received a booster.
“When we consider those eligible to be vaccinated who have not had any of the shots, and another million who have not gotten the booster and whose vaccinations are no longer valid, and children who have not been vaccinated, we are in a situation where one third of the population is unprotected. And the two major challenges for the system now are vaccinating children and administering the booster,” said the CEO of Leumit Health Services, Haim Fernandes.
“If we manage in a month or a month and a half to vaccinate about 50 percent of children and deliver the booster to another 250,000 people, this will bring us to a better protected situation. The right time to do it is now. The R number is on the rise and another month is needed to achieve full immunity after receiving the vaccination, and so time can be critical,” Fernandes added.