image Photo: Flash90

Delta variant reaches Israel

Israel is now recommending that all 12-15 year-olds be vaccinated against COVID-19, citing new outbreaks attributed to the more infectious Delta variant.

Israel expanded vaccine eligibility to include adolescents last month but until now had left the matter up to the parents’ preference.  So far, only 2-4% of 12-15-year-olds are among the nearly three-quarters of Israelis in eligible age groups to have been inoculated.

Israel has been a world leader with its vaccine rollout and has been sharing data it collected with Pfizer, which provided the vaccines. Nearly all social distancing measures were dropped last month after infections dropped to single digits from more than 10,000 daily cases in January, and the country has been hoping to open its borders to vaccinated tourists in July.

Daily cases more than doubled to 125 on Monday, however, after outbreaks at two schools were attributed to the more infectious Delta variant.  322 Israelis tested positive for the disease over the past 5 days. There are currently 477 active cases of whom 26 are listed in serious condition.

The outbreak has led to the tripling of vaccination appointments for 12-15-year-olds at some Israeli healthcare providers.

There are still not enough cases of the Delta variant in Israel to conduct research into the efficacy of the Pfizer vaccine, said Ran Balicer, who heads a COVID-19 government advisory committee, even though some studies abroad have shown it to be successful. But it remains unlikely that the country “can reach full herd immunity” when over a third of the population, mostly children and adolescents, are unvaccinated, he said.

The Ministry of Health issued a formal recommendation for 12-15 year-olds to get vaccinated, noting that travel abroad is expected to rise during the summer. The Ministry also announced this morning that restrictions will be tightened over visits to countries at high risk for the coronavirus, including Argentina, Brazil, Russia, Mexico, South Africa and India; including the imposition of a ₪ 5,000 shekel fine.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett added his own appeal for the teens to be vaccinated, speaking in a televised address to the nation from the Ben Gurion International Airport. He made the remarks following a tour of the testing facility at the airport and an assessment of the coronavirus in discussion with the Ministers of Health, Transportation, Public Security and the Interior, as well as the head of the National Security Council, the National Coronavirus Project Director, Israel Police officials, and representatives from the Finance Ministry, and the Population and Airports Authorities.

Expressing regret at the spread of the Delta variant in Israel, which he said “infects at a 50% higher rate,” Prime Minister Bennett stressed the need to act fast and “take a bucket of water and pour it over the fire while the fire is still small.”

Despite the infection of some people who have already been fully inoculated, he said the vaccine still has “a significant effect.”

After noting that “There is much ‘fake news’ but we are dealing in science,” the Premier stressed that “All scientific indicators in Israel and the world show that the danger from the disease is immeasurably higher than the risk from the vaccine.”

Pointing out that “we have not seen large-scale side effects” among the 2-2.5 million children in the United States have been vaccinated, the Premier stressed that, “I can tell you, as the father of children this age, I am taking my children to be vaccinated.”

He also revealed that Israel’s inventory of vaccines is due to expire by the end of July, meaning that people should receive the first shot no later the 9 July to complete the process in time.

“Only 2,000 young people are being vaccinated a day and in order to meet our goal we need 20,000,” he urged.

“As a parent, I am not waiting; I will do this tomorrow,” said the Israeli leader, while calling on others to follow his example by immediately scheduling appointments for their own children.

The latest directives unveiled by the Prime Minister to contain spread of the Delta variant include the re-establishment of the government’s Coronavirus Cabinet, wearing of masks by anyone inside of the Ben Gurion Airport, administration of PCR test to anyone entering the country and increase of testing stations.

In a joint statement, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz announced agreement for the Israeli Ministry of Defense to operate a testing facility capable of simultaneously administering hundreds of tests on airport premises. The project’s launch will be expedited so that it will become operational as quickly as possible.

“The defense establishment will continue to assist the Health Ministry and respond to any national needs,” said Defense Minister Gantz, adding that, “The coronavirus battle is not yet behind us, but through responding swiftly and resolutely, we will maintain low infection levels, and come out on top of this, too.”

Health Minister Horowitz stressed that, “To keep up routine life in Israel, we need to closely monitor entry into Israel. The Health Ministry is going to step up airport testing significantly, and now, in preparation for heightened travel over the summer months, we are going to get another testing facility quickly up and running, so that we can avoid unreasonably long lines. Through cross-ministry collaboration, we will protect public health in Israel, while minimizing public restrictions.”

Prime Minister Bennett called on all citizens postpone any unnecessary trips abroad, instead urging them to “travel around Israel. We have a beautiful country.”

While “at this stage we are not changing policy and the only reason is that we want to study the information before making various decisions,” Bennett went on to caution that, “there will likely be significant changes in the policy for entering and exiting the country.”

Even though Israel dropped its mandate for the wearing of masks indoors on 15 June, the Premier advocated that the population voluntarily resume donning face coverings while in closed areas. He said he has instructed government ministers and public leaders to do so now, although the directive will only become obligatory for the general public again if infection levels cross the threshold of 100 new daily cased for several continuous days.

Regarding reported “massive violations of quarantine,” Prime Minister Bennett said that 270 more inspectors will be deployed to enforce mandatory isolation periods. Unlike in the past, parents now “will bear full responsibility” if their offspring under the age of 12 violate the restrictions.

“If we all look at the bigger picture and think, we will understand that poor behavior on our part will hurt others,” Israel’s newest Premier, who took office on 13 June, called for the exercise of “common sense,” including avoidance of large-scale events in closed places “as much as possible.”

“We do not want to return to the days of general lockdown or lockdowns on cities” and “we can defeat the coronavirus without draconian measures,” said Bennett, stressing to the nation’s people, “It depends on you alone.”