The Health Ministry director-general said Sunday he expects Israel's pioneering COVID booster shot campaign to stop a rise in serious cases "over the next week", which have been steadily going up since late July amid the spread of the delta variant, raising concerns the health system may be nearing full capacity.
Meanwhile, according to Health Ministry figures released on Sunday, there are currently 524 patients in serious condition, the highest figure since mid-March. A vast majority of them, the data shows, are not fully vaccinated.
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The rate of positive tests is now at 5.38 percent, also the highest figure reported since late February. There are currently 49,608 confirmed active cases in Israel, 4,145 of them reported on Saturday.
Prof. Nachman Ash told 103FM radio he was "watching the data with concern. The figures are expected to go up. We truly hope to see the effect of the third vaccine (dose) in curbing the upward trend in the number of patients in serious condition, but the number of new confirmed cases will surely keep going up."
Asked whether he thinks another lockdown is needed to curb the rise in new cases, Ash said: "I think we should wait to see the effects of the third vaccine. I hope it reduces the number of serious cases, and the next few days will tell."
In the past two weeks Israel has been offering a third dose of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine to people aged 60 and up, last week expanding the inoculation drive to Israelis 50 and up, as well as health workers, prisoners and prison staff, and other groups considered at a higher risk.
According to the latest figures issued by the Health Ministry, more than 866,000 people received a third dose, representing more than half of Israelis 60 and up.
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5.9 percent of Israelis aged 50-59 have received a booster shot since Israel's vaccination drive was expanded on Friday to include them too.
"We have initial information about the influence of the third dose (in preventing) infection," Ash said, giving "an initial estimate" of reducing the number of new cases by 50 percent.
He added hospitals are overburdened, "but not only because of the coronavirus," stressing "we are still at the stage we can provide the best care possible." Ash called for "cautious optimism," saying he hopes that "what we are doing will bring serious cases down."
Some experts have raised doubts about this strategy, arguing there is insufficient data regarding the effectiveness of the third dose.
Israel launched its booster shot campaign about two weeks before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized on Thursday a booster dose for people with compromised immune systems.
A model prepared by Prof. Eran Segal from the Weizmann Institute and presented at a cabinet meeting last week suggested that a third dose administered to people aged 40 and up would reduce the daily number of infections by 10,000. If the third dose was given only to people over 60, it claimed, there would be more than 20,000 confirmed infected people by the end of September. If the booster was given to people over 40, there would be 10,000 infections a day.
Israel was the first country to administer a third dose of the vaccine at a large scale, but a handful of other countries have since followed its lead.
The move has raised calls for desisting, for reasons other than its effectiveness.
The head of the World Health Organization, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, called for stopping the administration of a booster shot, arguing that it was unacceptable that countries with high vaccination rates would administer a third dose while other countries suffer a surge of infections and deaths due to low vaccination rates.