Against the backdrop of the worldwide spread of the new Omicron variant, Israel is now offering a fourth dose of the COVID-19 vaccine to senior citizens over 60, and at-risk individuals, as well as medical staff.
The fourth vaccination rollout is a recent recommendation from a group of health officials in Israel. Health Ministry Director-General Nachman Ash will need to approve the medical recommendation before it can be implemented.
In a radio interview today, Health Nitzan Minister Horowitz said, “From next week those who are over 60 can get their fourth shot without an appointment.”
Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett enthusiastically embraced the recommendation for a fourth vaccination.
“This is wonderful news that will assist us in getting through the Omicron wave that is engulfing the world,” declared Bennett.
The prime minister stressed the Jewish state’s pioneering role in the different phases of the ongoing pandemic.
“The citizens of Israel were the first in the world to receive the third dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and we are continuing to pioneer with the fourth dose as well,” said Bennett.
Professor Galia Rahav, head of Sheba Medical Center’s infectious diseases unit and a member of the health expert panel, admitted that the decision to recommend the fourth dose was “not simple.” However, she justified the decision by referring to the rapid global spread of the Omicron variant.
“But at the same time, there are terribly frightening numbers from what is happening in the wider world,” said Rahav.
While the Omicron variant is currently spreading rapidly around the globe, it appears that most infected individuals have so far experienced mild or no symptoms.
For example, the number of daily cases in Denmark, as in most of Europe, has increased dramatically in recent weeks. The small Scandinavian country currently reports some 118,000 active COVID cases among a population of about six million people. However, the overwhelming majority of those cases involve patients with little to no symptoms. In addition, there are only 67 seriously ill patients in Denmark, where life largely continues as normal.
So far there have been very few deaths attributed to Omicron worldwide. A recent Israeli fatality was initially attributed to Omicron, however, it turns out the patient had died from the previous Delta variant.
The number of daily COVID cases in Israel has recently risen sharply, on average surpassing more than 1,000 new cases per day. Consequently, Ash has instructed the nation’s hospitals and medical facilities to prepare for the worst amid the ongoing the Omicron spread.
"All hospitals must be prepared to receive COVID-19 patients on short notice and once their dedicated wards reach an 80% capacity, they must be able to open additional wings to meet the demand," Ash recently stated in a letter to Israel’s hospitals titled "Preparation for a Fifth Wave."
Even prior to the pandemic, Israel had some of the most overcrowded hospitals among the advanced OECD countries. There has, therefore, been a genuine fear throughout the pandemic among Israeli officials that the country’s already overstretched healthcare system will eventually be overwhelmed and unable to treat seriously ill patients.
However, not all Israeli officials are worried about the Omicron variant. During a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday, Israeli Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman urged against panic and excessive restrictions.
“We have been living with Omicron for a month and a half already. So far only 12 people have died across the world from it as far as we know,” said Liberman.
The finance minister also compared the Omicron variant to a regular flu.
“In terms of the influence of Omicron, I don’t see it as being any more disruptive at the moment than flu. And just as we live with flu, now we live with Omicron,” stated Liberman. There are currently only 80 seriously ill COVID patients in Israel compared to more than 800 in late September.
Senior health officials angrily pushed back on Liberman's assessment.
Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, head of public health services, challenged Liberman, insinuating that he did not have all the relevant information, having missed a health official's briefing on the new variant.
“We clearly presented the findings from South Africa showing a rise in hospitalization. It was not as deadly as the current (Delta) variant, but there was still a rise in mortality,” she said.
Liberman, as well as Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, has been less active in decision-making on coronavirus policies, and criticized for reportedly not attending several Coronavirus Cabinet meetings in recent months.
The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.