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Israel kicks off mass coronavirus vaccine drive to stamp out COVID-19 pandemic

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein receives a coronavirus vaccine at Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan on December 19, 2020. (Amir Cohen/Pool/AFP)

Israel’s vaccine drive officially began on Sunday morning, with healthcare workers, the president, and the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff set to receive the coronavirus shot throughout the day.

Among the first to receive the vaccine on Sunday morning were former coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu, who has returned to his job at Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital, and Finance Minister Israel Katz.

President Reuven Rivlin received the vaccination Sunday morning at a Jerusalem hospital. IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi received the military’s first dose of the vaccine in order to set a “personal example” to the rest of the troops, the army said.

From Monday, Israelis aged 60-plus and at-risk populations can receive a vaccine at health maintenance organizations (HMOs) with an appointment.

The government hopes to inoculate some 60,000 people per day and as many as two million Israelis by the end of January. But Hebrew media reports said the first week would serve as a pilot program, tamping down expectations that hundreds of thousands of Israelis would be vaccinated within days.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday night became the first person in Israel to receive the coronavirus vaccine, getting the shot on live television and setting off the nation’s ambitious COVID-19 vaccination campaign, hailing the occasion as a “very great day” for the nation.

“One small injection for a man and one giant leap for the health of us all,” Netanyahu, 71, quipped from Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, paraphrasing astronaut Neil Armstrong’s famous words after landing on the moon.

“If everyone cooperates, keeps the rules and goes to get vaccinated, we’ll get out of this and we could well be the first country in the world to emerge from this [pandemic]. Let’s do it together,” he said.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein was also vaccinated moments later.

The vaccine comes in two doses, administered three weeks apart.

The Health Ministry has laid out targets on the distribution of the shot.

After inoculating those over 60, Israelis working in jobs with a high risk of exposure to the virus, such as teachers, social workers, first responders, and prison staff (prisoners will also get priority); and Israel Defense Forces soldiers and other security personnel will be vaccinated.

Last will come the rest of the population, with a timeline depending on how many doses arrive in Israel and the level of demand by the priority groups.

A number of groups will not receive the vaccine at this stage, including people who have recovered from COVID-19; women who are breastfeeding or pregnant — or soon planning to get pregnant; people with a history of severe allergic reactions; and Israelis under 16.

Israel will deploy the Pfizer vaccine in the first stage of the inoculation push.

Along with some four million doses from Pfizer expected to arrive by the end of the month, Channel 12 said Wednesday that another four million were expected to come by the end of March for a total of eight million doses — enough to vaccinate four million people. Israel’s population is about 9.25 million.

The country also has an agreement to receive 6 million doses of the Moderna vaccine, enough for 3 million people, which was authorized in the United States for an emergency rollout on Friday by the Food and Drug Administration. However, Channel 12 has said Moderna’s vaccine is not expected to arrive in Israel earlier than April.

Earlier Saturday, Channel 13 reported that authorities were already out of doses to allocate after sending the first batch of several tens of thousands of doses to HMOs, with no clear timeline for when the next shipments of shots would arrive.

The director-general of the Health Ministry denied the report.

“There will be vaccines for all the Israeli people, talk about a shortage isn’t correct,” Chezy Levy was quoted saying by the Ynet news site.

Levy also called on all Israelis to get vaccinated. He told Channel 12 news Saturday that he was “happy and excited” the campaign was beginning.

He also warned Israel was headed toward new restrictions to curb a rise in infections, and maybe even a third lockdown.

With new daily cases on the rise, the coronavirus cabinet was set to meet Sunday to discuss new restrictions on the public, including possibly shutting down commerce for several weeks.

Israel is contending with a marked rise in new COVID-19 cases, with daily infections surging to almost 3,000 from Tuesday through Friday, the highest caseloads in over two months.

The government-set benchmark for reimposing restrictions is an average of 2,500 daily cases over an entire week or a basic reproduction number of over 1.32. That figure was at 1.27 last week, according to the Health Ministry. Any value over one means the virus infection rate is increasing.

Among the steps under consideration are the closure of all street shops and malls within the next few days as well as the possible closure of some school grades in areas with high infection rates.

Coronavirus czar Nachman Ash warned on Saturday that Israel would not see significant results from the vaccination drive for weeks.

“We will start to see results after no less than two months from the start of the immunization program,” Ash said. “Despite the vaccine, we need to keep to the restrictions. Go and get vaccinated, but keep to the regulations at the same time.”

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