Israel’s fierce fourth wave of COVID-19 cases may be in retreat, but the country is on the offensive against the coronavirus once again — with an unprecedented round of vaccine boosters for everyone older than 12.
As of this week, millions of Israelis who were considered fully vaccinated with two shots lose that status unless they get one more. Their “green pass” will hit a red light, once again denying them access to public places like restaurants, gyms and movie theatres.
“I think it’s an aggressive decision to be making,” said Jamie Blumenthal, who was taking his daughter to a public pool in Jerusalem. He has a new green pass.
“Vaccines are good, but the question is, do we need to keep on inoculating ourselves over and over and over again if we have what we need in our system?” Blumenthal told a freelance CBC crew.
Israeli experts say they don’t know about future boosters, but they are confident about this one.
“We were brave enough going with the third dose because we had data for Israel and we were sure this was the right thing to do,” said Dr. Itamar Grotto, a former associate director general of the national Health Ministry and an expert in viral diseases at Ben Gurion University.
“It’s also good for the young people,” he said in an interview with CBC, “because we saw a lot of young people getting the disease after two doses.”
Israel is coming down from a sharp fourth wave peak of 10,730 cases per day in mid-September, with 3,369 new cases recorded on Tuesday, based on information from Israel’s Health Ministry. The proportion of the total population fully vaccinated with two doses is 61.4 per cent, while 66.7 per cent have at least one shot.
Ahead of most countries
Israel was ahead of most countries in fully vaccinating a large percentage of its population, but found that COVID-19 protection had waned after five or six months, especially among seniors.
To make up for that, it offered booster shots, starting with the oldest in July and progressively dropping the age of eligibility to 12.
A study of Israelis older than 60 published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that severe cases of COVID-19 were “substantially lower among those who received a booster (third) dose of the vaccine,” even when faced with the dominant delta variant. Seniors were 11 times less likely to be infected and almost 20 times less likely to become seriously ill, the study found.
Other Israeli studies, which have not been peer-reviewed, point to similar results for the broader population.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has been aggressively promoting his “pioneering” policy, getting his own third shot in front of the cameras on the day he became eligible.
“We were the first to learn, to realize that the vaccines were waning, getting weaker,” he said in a speech to the United Nations last week. “We faced a choice to either drag Israel into yet another set of lockdowns, further harm our economy and society, or double down on vaccines. We chose the latter.”
Still, experts and health officials elsewhere have been cautious about following Israel’s lead.
Canada, Britain, the United States and some other countries have recently recommended boosters for seniors or those at high risk of disease, but no other government has approved a third round of shots for the general population.
Still studying boosters
Last month, Dr. Shelley Deeks, the chair of Canada’s National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI), said the group was still studying whether additional doses are needed, “but it is too early to comment on the state of the evidence for general boosters at this time.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) is strongly opposed, for reasons of fairness. It says it’s too soon for widespread third shots when much of the globe hasn’t been able to receive a first one.
“We do not want to see widespread use of boosters for healthy people who are fully vaccinated,” said WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, calling for a moratorium on third-shot campaigns until the end of 2021 to allow poorer countries to catch up.
Even in Israel, experts like Grotto believe people should not be forced to take a booster if they already have two shots.
“This should be some kind of a more personal decision,” he said. Young people, in particular, may say “I don’t trust a government that tells me every six months I have to get a fourth dose, fifth dose, etcetera, just to get into a restaurant,” he said.
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That’s exactly how Batya Harush felt as she waiting at a drive-thru testing site in Jerusalem with her three children in the car.
“Now, if you want to go to work, if you want to go out, you need to do something that you don’t want to do. I just don’t want to do the vaccination” she said.
On the other hand, the Israel Ministry of Health says 3.6 million Israelis have gone for a booster, out of about five million who are eligible because they already have the first two doses. Many of these — several hundred thousand — have rushed to get their third dose in the past few days.
David Attias, a 31-year-old banker in Tel Aviv, was among the first to get his shot when his age group became eligible. Like many, he’s driven by the desire to put the pandemic behind him.
“What is important to us is to get back to kind of normal life,” he said.