COVID Vaccine Has Saved 20,000 Israeli Lives, Public Health Experts Say

‘Without vaccines, instead of 8,500 people we’d have close to 30,000 people dying – and that would be a disaster,’ says Prof. Nadav Davidovitch of Ben-Gurion University

Sam Sokol
Sam Sokol
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Virginia Wandel,89, and Zvika Serbia, 95, dance before they receive a fourth dose of the COVID-19 vaccine in Netanya this month.
Virginia Wandel, 89, and Zvika Serbia, 95, dance before they receive a fourth dose of the COVID-19 vaccine in Netanya this month.Credit: Ammar Awad / Reuters
Sam Sokol
Sam Sokol

Israel’s COVID-19 vaccination drive has been an impressive success, saving an estimated 20,000 lives during the two-year pandemic, a top Israeli public health expert told Haaretz on Tuesday.

Prof. Nadav Davidovitch, director of the School of Public Health at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, said the medical community was surprised by the rapid spread and mutation of the coronavirus in 2020. But he believes that, despite possible surprises, Israel may have turned a corner in fighting the pandemic.

“We estimate that the vaccines saved 20,000 people from dying in Israel. Without vaccines, instead of 8,500 people we’d have close to 30,000 people dying – and that would be a disaster,” he said.

“We’re learning all the time about this virus,” he added. “There were several things that weren’t clear. One was its rate of mutation. This is something that we knew, of course: Viruses are mutating. It happens all the time, but the pace of development … was actually more than I expected.”

According to Itamar Grotto, a former deputy director general of the Health Ministry, between December 2020 – when the vaccination program began – and November 2021, Israel ranked third in the number of deaths avoided, buoyed by the vaccinations. He said 15,662 deaths were avoided, while during this period 3,972 people over age 60 died of COVID in Israel.

Grotto added that between January 1, 2021 and January 19, 2022, 4,989 people died of COVID in Israel, but without vaccines 24,661 people would have died – thus the vaccine prevented 19,672 deaths during that time.

A mother accompanying her daughter for a dose of the COVID vaccine Tuesday.Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

The 6 percent of unvaccinated Israelis age 60 and over accounted for 32 percent of serious cases and 35 percent of COVID deaths over the past month.

Per capita, for every serious case of a vaccinated person age 60 or over, there are eight serious cases of unvaccinated patients. And for every death of a vaccinated person, there are eight deaths of unvaccinated people.

Pivoting to the broader picture, Davidovitch of Ben-Gurion University said the medical community has made much faster progress in understanding the virus than many observers expected. He added that it was “quite astonishing how fast data, including the genetic composition of the virus, was distributed.”

As he put it, “That’s why the vaccine was developed so fast. The pace of research and sharing information ... is unbelievable. But it also has the risk of sometimes [spreading] unfounded information that might be dangerous, such as hydroxychloroquine,” he added, referring to the malaria drug touted by then-President Donald Trump. “We didn’t appreciate the danger of misinformation. It’s an infodemic.”

The spread of misinformation has helped discourage many people from getting the vaccine, Davidovitch said, but another big problem remains: The vaccine has not been made available in great numbers to many poorer nations. He calls this a “grave mistake” with the potential to turn these countries into “fertile ground for developing new variants.”

Still, he believes COVID is likely to soon become endemic like the flu; every year will bring the possibility of a new strain that could reignite the pandemic.

People masked up in Jerusalem last week. Credit: Emil Salman

COVID vaccines, he said, will become part of the regular schedule of shots for children.

But Davidovitch said that despite the public health watchfulness and the vaccination program, “we are right now in the middle of the storm, and the worst weeks in terms of hospitals” in Israel. The health system could be overburdened before the current wave crests, he warned.

A medical worker prepares a dose of the COVID vaccine in Jerusalem.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Davidovitch also rejected criticism of the government, saying that its decision to loosen some restrictions was not responsible for the spread of omicron. Instead, given the strain’s greater infectiousness and shorter incubation period, previously effective policies were no longer useful. Still, he added, Israel may have gone “too far in terms of releasing restrictions.”

And while many experts are now calling for the government to abandon its Green Pass system for access to venues, he said the system should be maintained for future outbreaks, while the current rules should be kept for spaces like hospitals and retirements homes.

He said that though the fourth dose of the vaccine, currently available to people 60 and over in Israel and other vulnerable groups, is definitely helping, the focus should be on the first three doses and masking. He said Israelis might be able to forgo masks this spring or summer.

Though the virus could become endemic this year, “we were surprised so many times by COVID that we need to be very careful and continue to strengthen the surveillance and community health and hospital systems,” Davidovitch said. 

Prof. Eyal Leshem, director of the Center for Travel Medicine and Tropical Diseases at Sheba Medical Center near Tel Aviv, shares Davidovitch’s optimism, even if Israelis may end up using masks for “years to come.”

“The vaccine has been shown to be highly effective, and since then the overall trajectory, despite huge waves, has been a huge reduction in risk, and this hasn’t changed during the last year,” Leshem said.

Still, precautions and vaccines are key, noted Prof. Diane Levin-Zamir, head of the Department of Health Promotion at Clalit Health Services.

“I think some of the experts are expecting it to be endemic to a certain extent, but to what extent I don’t think anybody knows for sure,” she said.

“We’re encouraging people to get [the fourth dose]. It’s the policy of the Health Ministry. We know it does protect, and it’s important that people stay vaccinated.”

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