Israel to Spend Millions to Fight Fake COVID News as Vaccine Drive Slows

With the COVID vaccine now available to all over the age of 16, and in the face of disinformation, Israel plans a campaign to convince people to get the shot

Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati
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A Clalit COVID vaccination in Petah Tikva, two weeks ago.
A Clalit COVID vaccination in Petah Tikva, two weeks ago. Credit: Hadas Parush
Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

The Health Ministry plans to spend millions of shekels over the next several weeks on encouraging younger Israelis to get vaccinated, in part with information campaigns to battle the rumors, disinformation and conspiracy theories about the vaccines on social media.

While Israel’s vaccination drive was off to a fast start, with demand outstripping supply among the over­­-60 age group, that has changed. Now that the vaccine is available to everyone aged 16 and up, demand has slowed and officials are trying to persuade people to get vaccinated. Not even the presence of new variants and a rise in infection rates and the number of people who are severely ill with COVID-19 have motivated younger Israelis to get the shots.

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Israel still leads the world by a far stretch in the number of vaccination doses administered per 100 people, at 64.6 as of Sunday. In the 50 days since Israel’s national vaccine drive began, about 3.5 million people have received at least one dose (1.8 million are fully protected, having received the second dose at least one week ago). The vaccination rate for over-60s is 85 percent. The numbers mean Israel is halfway to its goal of administering both doses to 5 million people. (The vaccines have not yet been approved for children under 16.)

But the second half of the inoculation race is demonstrably harder and more complex. The daily vaccination rate is now far below its peak, and well short of the capabilities of the health maintainence organizations (HMOs). With about 120,000 vaccines given per day, only about 65,000 Israelis are added to the rolls of the newly vaccinated. About two weeks ago, when the lines at the vaccine centers began to thin out, eligibility was expanded to include ages 16-18. On Wednesday, the drive was opened to the last remaining age group, 19-35, due to pressure from the HMOs. The move did not have the desired effect of causing vaccination rates to swell, but it did expose some issues that had been masked when eligibility was limited.

In the 16-18 group, 155,000 people have been vaccinated, 27 percent of the target. Health officials seem unperturbed by the slow pace, due to the assumption that these teens have a clear motivation for getting vaccinated in the form of parental pressure and the ability to take their matriculation (“bagrut”) exams. Whether that assumption is valid remains to be seen.

But Health Ministry officials and health network directors are worried about the 19-50 group. Although people aged 19-35 have been vaccine-eligible for less than a week, most members of the group who have been vaccinated did so before they were officially allowed to do so. According to the latest Health Ministry figures, about 400,000 (31 percent) of Israelis aged 20-29, 427,000 (40 percent) aged 30-39 and 630,000 (58 percent) aged 40-49 have already been vaccinated.

To health officials, increasing these numbers, especially for people in their 20s and 30s, is a significant challenge that calls for taking more active measures, and that is where they are focusing their efforts. Within a few days, the Health Ministry plans to launch an information campaign that will include not only providing science-based sources but also monitoring and even removing web pages spreading disinformation about the vaccines. The police have even been called in to deal with anti-vaxxers who schedule vaccine appointments they have no intention of going to for the purpose of forcing the centers to discard unused doses.

“We managed to take down some of the pages of the disseminators of fake news and in certain cases we went to the police,” says the Health Ministry’s VP of information and international relations, Einav Shimron. “It’s gotten crazy. People post insane things, but some people believe themand it causes harm. If I am hearing about an otherwise normal woman who is convinced that the vaccines contain a surveillance chip, then there’s a problem,” she says. Shimron says the campaign will target people who are open to getting vaccinated, not hard-core anti-vaxxers. “The message is not to rely on social media when it comes to medical information,” she says.

The Health Ministry continues to stress the importance of physical distancing and mask-wearing, together with the vaccines, in stopping the spread of the coronavirus. It is also putting time and money into separate information campaigns targeting two vaccine-hesitant populations, Arabs and Haredi Jews, with measures that include getting physicians in each group to spread the word and holding online educational meetings for high school students. “A very great effort is being made, and at the same time we are moving forward with incentives and the ‘green passport,’” Shimron adds.

Even before the coronavirus crisis, Israel had a strong vaccination culture, with vaccination rates of 95%-98% percent for childhood diseases. The pockets of resistance, however loudly they may have resonated in social-media echo chambers, were never really a threat. But the pandemic has changed that.

A man waits for his vaccine in a nearly empty vaccination center in Jerusalem, this week.Credit: Emil Salman

What’s in it for me?

“Together with our efforts to increase vaccination rates in the 50-plus group, we have to pay attention to the 16-50 group,” says Haim Fernandes, the director of Leumit Health Care Services, one of Israel’s four HMOs. He says that in January, the 16-50 group accounted for half of all COVID-19 patients and 25% of those with severe illness. “There are appointments available, people aren’t running to sign up,” he says about opening the vaccine drive to the 19-35 age group. “It’s not the pace it was when it was [only] the 60-pluses. We can send another text message and call them but I estimate that in the end the big push will come from incentives such as the ‘green passport,’” Hernandes says.

Maccabi Health Care Services says 53% of members aged 16-18 and 38% aged 19-35 have received at least one dose or have scheduled an appointment. The network has the capacity to administer about 60,000 vaccinations per day, but is only giving around 20,000 now. “There are various motivations that cause people to get vaccinated,” says a Maccabi employee who requested anonymity. “If up to now everyone who was vaccinated wanted to be protected or to protect their family, now we have to talk about ‘What’s in it for me?’ If the green passport is in the works, it should be done quickly. When you take a 25-year-old guy who feels safe, the way to get him to take the vaccine is through the ticket that will get him into the soccer stadium,” the source says.

The chief nursing officer at Meuhedet Health Services, Mali Kusha, notes that vaccination rates among the network’s pregnant members dropped after the Health Ministry issued a recommendation, later withdrawn, implying that the vaccine was inadvisable during the first trimester. About 32 percent of Meuhedet’s pregnant members have been vaccinated (including women who contracted COVID-19 and recovered, acquiring natural immunity). Kusha says the announcement caused confusion among women who feared the vaccine could affect their pregnancy or the fetus. She adds that Meuhedet is also struggling with misinformation circulating on social media about the vaccines posing a danger to breastfeeding women or to fertility.

The low overall vaccination rate in Israel’s Arab community – 19 percent, compared to 41 percent in the population at large – is cited repeatedly by health officials. For over-60s, the rate is 56 percent, compared to 85 percent among all Israelis in that age group. In Kseife, a Bedouin community in the south, the overall vaccination rate is just 3 percent, and 19 percent for people 60 and up. In Arara in the Negev (there is a community with the same name in the north), the respective figures are 5 percent and 22 percent. The rates are similar for other area communities.

A coronavirus vaccine center, this week.Credit: Emil Salman

The rate of positive COVID tests in Israel’s Arabic-speaking communities sits at 14 percent, compared to 8.9 percent overall.

The Health Ministry is waging the vaccination battle on all fronts. It remains unclear that reaching the goal of vaccinating 5 million Israelis will provide sufficient protection to end the pandemic.

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