Israel's vaccine success in doubt as fourth coronavirus wave hits

Country has started administering third shots of Covid-19 vaccine

Medical workers at the Barzilai Medical Centre in Ashkelon, Israel. AP
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After sweeping aside restrictions and celebrating a return to normal life, Israel is now grappling with a spike in coronavirus cases.

In June, Israelis left their masks at home for the first time in more than a year. After a widely praised vaccination campaign, just a few dozen infections were being registered each day and scrapping mandatory mask-wearing was welcomed as a sign of triumph.

But just weeks later, masks are back on and Israel’s daily cases have topped 10,000.

We are seeing people who are going to die because they didn’t get vaccinated.
Ameer Elemy, head of intensive care at a Nazareth hospital

“We are a little bit afraid of what’s happening with this wave,” said Ameer Elemy, head of coronavirus care at Nazareth Hospital EMMS, in northern Israel.

“It’s the Delta variant, it’s very obvious for all the world,” Dr Elemy said.

The coronavirus variant was first detected in Israel in April. By mid-August it accounted for 98 per cent of cases, the health ministry said.

Hospitalisations and deaths are going up in tandem with infections, with nearly 700 seriously ill patients out of a population of nine million. Such figures have not been seen since early March.

When 31 patients died nationwide on August 22, it was the highest daily death toll since February.

“We are seeing people who are going to die because they didn’t get vaccinated,” said Dr Elemy.

Serach Doitch, an intensive care nurse at Rambam Health Care Campus in Haifa, a coastal city, said the majority of patients are either over 60 or unvaccinated.

“There’s a lot of young women. [There were] two 20-year-olds who were pregnant, they had to do emergency C-sections,” she said, adding that the mothers and babies survived.

Health ministry data shows the vast majority of the seriously ill are unvaccinated.

Although Israel was celebrated for rolling out one of the world’s fastest vaccination drives, inoculations tapered off at below 60 per cent of the population.

Nadir Arber of Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Medical Centre said some patients express regrets once reaching hospital.

“How stupid I was,” he recalled some saying. “Most of them; not all of them.”

Israel has also reported vaccine protection waning among those who were inoculated at the start of the year, prompting the government to roll out a programme of third shots.

The World Health Organisation has opposed the move, arguing the focus should be on ensuring the equitable distribution of vaccines worldwide.

For example, Palestinian health ministry figures show just 8.5 per cent of Palestinians in Gaza and the Israeli-occupied West Bank have received two doses.

Israel has inoculated more than 100,000 Palestinians with Israeli work permits, but has not included the broader population of five million in its vaccination drive.

In Israel there is broad support for administering the third vaccine dose, with more than 1.7 million residents receiving the shot so far.

“I thought we were not going to face a fourth wave, I was wrong. I think now with the third vaccination it will eventually go away,” said Dr Arber.

The Israeli government has put vaccinations at the centre of their coronavirus strategy this summer. As part of the campaign, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was photographed alongside his mother and daughter as they received shots.

The rise in infections has also been met with fresh restrictions, such as testing and a one-week quarantine for the vast majority of residents returning from abroad.

Only those carrying a “green pass” - which shows recovery from coronavirus, a recent negative test or proof of vaccination - can enter venues such as gyms and restaurants.

“I think the most important thing is to go back to normal life. I’m concerned that the entire world is going to stop moving,” said Dr Arber, an advocate of the green pass approach.

After weeks of wrangling, the Israeli government has decided to forge ahead with plans to start the school year on September 1.

Children are currently being tested to see if they have antibodies against coronavirus, a policy Mrs Doitch described as a “really good idea”. Those who are registered with sufficient antibodies will be exempt from quarantine if there is a virus outbreak in their school.

In Nazareth, Dr Elemy was supportive of opening classrooms despite the likelihood it will lead to a rise in infections.

“I think we need to open the schools and handle the infections in the schools,” he said, while suggesting there should be more restrictions in other areas of life.

“Maybe to close bars, to limit the number of people going to weddings,” he said.

The government has been wary of closing businesses, given the economic damage wrought by three lockdowns under the former administration.

The second shutdown was imposed last September on the eve of the Jewish holiday season, amid a raging infection rate.

The government is yet to announce measures for this year’s festivities, which begin on September 6, with the premier saying a lockdown is avoidable.

“Defeating this wave is within our grasp,” Mr Bennett said on Sunday. “If the public continues to get vaccinated en masse, if we continue to wear masks properly and if we continue to act responsibly, we will celebrate the holidays with our families, freely.”

In Haifa, Mrs Doitch said greater awareness of the vaccination and adherence to wearing masks will be needed to push the infection rate down.

“We see here that a lot of people in Israel, they’re not as careful as they used to be,” the nurse said.

In the second year of the pandemic, medical staff are far more knowledgeable about Covid-19.

“We still wear the protective equipment like we did before but we’re not as scared at going in as we were before,” Mrs Doitch said of the intensive care ward.

While the fear has subsided, some doctors and nurses are growing weary of the heavy protective equipment that makes it difficult to move.

“The equipment itself is very tiring … It takes a lot more out of you,” Mrs Doitch said. “We want to go back to our regular lives.”

Updated: August 27, 2021, 6:21 AM