Israel, Widely Vaccinated, Suffers Another Covid-19 Surge
After becoming one of the first countries to open up thanks to a widespread Covid-19 vaccination campaign, Israel is again on guard, this time against the spread of the Delta variant of the coronavirus.
Mask mandates are back, including requirements to mask up for large outdoor gatherings. Many venues require people to show proof of vaccination, a negative Covid-19 test or proof of recovery from the virus. People returning from most countries have to quarantine for at least a week, even if they are fully vaccinated. Over-60s are being offered a third, booster shot of Pfizer Inc.’s vaccine, and the government is planning to offer it to younger recipients with the hopes it can suppress the rise of cases of severe illness.
Health officials are warning that Israel could face a fourth lockdown during the Jewish holiday season in September if the country doesn’t deliver more booster shots and improve on its wider vaccination rate; 60% of the total population are fully vaccinated, making up around 80% of adults.
A little over a month ago, day-to-day life in Israel was quickly getting back to normal. People were dining indoors or attending concerts without needing the so-called green pass, a digital certificate stored on phones to show the holder is fully vaccinated. But the more contagious Delta variant is forcing a change in tack, in a test case for what could happen elsewhere, including countries with high vaccination rates.
“That window when we weren’t concerned about things was so brief,” said Rena Magun, 61 years old, who co-runs a tourism and Jewish events-planning business with her husband in Jerusalem.
Ms. Magun said when she sent an invite to her friends for a meal last week she was careful to emphasize it would take place outside on the porch.
Her business has been badly damaged as families hoping to celebrate bar or bat mitzvahs with their children in Israel have been forced to reschedule the trips up to four times already since March 2020.
“It’s absolutely devastating,” Ms. Magun said.
She said she had decided to get the third Pfizer shot once she was sure it was safe. “I’m gonna get that booster so I can go back to feeling like Superman,” she recalled telling herself.
Other countries with similarly high vaccination rates, notably the U.K., have seen a wave of Delta infections, but hospital admissions have remained low and are falling, according to official data through early August.
Israeli health experts are watching closely for indications that Israel will follow the U.K.’s trajectory. If not, it could be a worrying sign for other countries.
There has been a jump in Israel in cases of severe illness caused by the virus since the start of August, doubling to 400 in a population of 9 million, with 240 of those patients already having been vaccinated. Patients over 50 years old account for 90% of the severe cases, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Tuesday.
“I ask every Israeli citizen over 50 to be very careful in the coming weeks,” he said.
Though the number of severe cases remains low, the rate of growth has raised concerns. Hospitals are preparing for an influx of patients similar to the early days of the pandemic, with a seven-day average of nearly 4,000 new coronavirus cases now being recorded daily.
To head off the outbreak and prevent larger numbers of vaccinated Israelis falling ill, Israel last month became one of the first countries to begin offering a third Pfizer dose to people 60 years old and over—without any clinical evidence that it would be effective. The decision came after preliminary data made available to medical experts advising Israel’s government showed that protection against severe illness for vaccinated people in the age group had dropped to 81% from 97% in mid-April.
Israeli experts said it wasn’t yet clear whether the apparent drop in protection was due to the Delta variant, waning immunity or a combination of the two.
The prime minister, Mr. Bennett, told health authorities Thursday to begin planning to provide boosters to people under 60 years of age. “Our goal has been, and remains, fighting the Delta strain without destructive harm to the economy, to the extent possible. In order to meet this task, the vaccination effort is the supreme tool,” he said.
Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz and medical experts advising the Israeli government said they hoped Israel would soon have its own evidence regarding the efficacy of the booster shot, possibly this week.
If the booster shot succeeds in lowering cases of severe illness, it would “give us a powerful tool against the pandemic,” Mr. Horowitz said. “This is why we decided to go ahead, even before [U.S.] FDA approval” of booster shots, he added.
In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration expects to have a strategy on Covid-19 vaccine boosters by early September that would lay out when and which vaccinated individuals should get the follow-up shots. The governments of France and Germany have said boosters would soon be available.
The booster rollouts come as the World Health Organization is pushing for a moratorium on such shots until at least the end of September, citing an urgent need to address a shortfall in vaccine supplies to poor countries.
Israeli authorities say more than 600,000 Israelis ages 60 and above, well over a third of the age group, have received a Pfizer booster since its use was approved. To be eligible, five months must have passed since the recipient got a second shot.
The government, meanwhile, is considering tightening measures to contain the spread of the virus.
Israeli police can now be seen patrolling streets and malls and showing up at weddings and other events to ensure people are wearing masks and that they have been fully vaccinated. Those bucking health regulations face large fines.
The return of quarantine for incoming travelers is another example of the more cautious approach.
For Yael Wood, 30, the inclusion of the U.S. on a list of countries from which new arrivals must quarantine beginning Aug. 11 was the final blow to the summer wedding she had fought hard to save. She postponed it after her close family members were unable to come from the U.S.
“I’m really disappointed in the system,” she said. “There’s no light at the end of the tunnel. That’s the feeling.”