Edelstein: Only way to deal with coronavirus outbreak is to lock down

JPost One-on-One weekly 'Zoomcast': Editor-in-chief Yaakov Katz with Health Minister Yuli Edelstein - Episode 1

Editor-in-chief Yaakov Katz speaking with Health Minister Yuli Edelstein
We're leading the world in vaccination numbers, with over 1.5 million people vaccinated which is over 10% of our country - 14% if not more. What made this possible?
We are now, I am, the whole [Health] Ministry, all the Israeli health workers are immunized. Finally, after more than half a year of working without a smile on our faces, we are now able to smile. 
I hear that from doctors and nurses, not because the coronavirus [pandemic] is over, but because as many nurses who are giving out the vaccine said to me, "finally we are doing something with hope," not just taking care of patients.

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How?
Even though we were an early bird [in receiving the vaccine], Israel is a small country as we all know, and I said loud and clear to the professional team in the ministry, who by the way as you can see did a wonderful job, I said to them, "the moment any company has a vaccine [available] they won't even be looking in our direction, they will be looking for markets that are a hundred times larger than us." 
That's why we had to be the first to by a place in line, we weren't buying a vaccine, but hope for a vaccine at that stage.
So, we signed with the right companies - with Moderna, with Pfizer and we negotiated with several other companies. We finalized the agreement with AstraZeneca a couple of months ago and so we now have all the leading firms in our future agreements.
Our HMOs are proving right now, that even with all the criticism with all the criticism they might have with taking appointments taking too much time or this and that, that right now at this very second thousands of employees are working all around the country [to distribute the vaccine]. 
And this is a very significant addition to the answer, is that these workers are all around the country, because from what I see in many countries around the world is this natural desire to organize some huge station, stadium or velodrome, you name it, and to hope that thousands of people will flow there and it's not happening.
We are getting to every developing town, moshav or kibbutz with small quantities of vaccines. Originally there were huge sets [given to us] which [numbered] in the thousands. We couldn't administer it in the North of the country, or the South of the country [in such large quantities], but with world famous Israeli technologies we overcame the difficulties and now we are [vaccinating] all around the country.
That enables especially the population at risk, over sixty, or those who are sick, to get the vaccine on time. We are now, I would say, around 60% of those eligible have already received the first shot.
Are we still on track by the end of January to get to about 2.5 million people?
No. The answer is no, because as we all remember, we are talking about two shots, two doses, to see a person as vaccinated - to be eligible for this "green passport" we are talking about right now.
That's why very soon. Probably in the next three to four days from now, we will pause and after we have 1.7-1.8 million people who got the first shot, our top priority will be then to give them the second shot, to make sure that they are out of danger and take into consideration the fact that unfortunately elderly people, or people with chronic diseases, are the majority of those who find their way to the coronavirus departments in the Israeli hospitals, so we want to make sure that first that the population most at risk is out of the equation.
Then, somewhere late January, early February, we will continue with the rest of the population.
So, we are not going to do what some people have raised, even in the ministry, of splitting up and using the second dose to vaccinate more people?
That was some kind of rumor, I want to make it loud and clear. We are following the instructions of Pfizer and Moderna - the moment we get Moderna - they are talking about two shots, two doses, and we are going to stick to that.
Do we know when Moderna will come? Is it coming in January, is it coming later?
We are getting the first supply of Moderna in the next couple of days, not a huge supply, but the moment we will have an efficient quantity of Moderna here in Israel we will start administering Moderna [doses] too. The technology is very similar, and I see and hope that it will help us with [covering] additional populations.
Just to wrap up the vaccination part, when do you think Israel will have the majority of its population vaccinated? Do you have a date that you can provide?
No. But it depends very much on the response of the population, that as of late has been incredible as we all see, but we have to deal with the readiness of administering vaccines to those who are still not eligible but are trying to find a way to be vaccinated. We oppose [those actively looking to get vaccinated before it's their time], because first of all we need to give the vaccine to those are at risk.
Having said all that, with the supplies that we have, and the different agreements we have with different firms, that by the end of April we will have all of those who want to get vaccinated, vaccinated. As far as the supply is concerned, the Health Ministry will have enough vaccines to give them to anyone who wants, except for children who are not yet at that stage for being vaccinated.
We're on the eve of a big lockdown, this is Israel third major lockdown. Thursday, midnight, Israel time the country will basically shut down schools, all commerce. What's the purpose of this? And can you tell us how urgent the situation is? Is it really that bad that we need this lockdown? And how long will it last?
We are right now moving in parallel on two different grooves. If you can imagine two racing cars, one is the car driven by the vaccine and the other one by the disease. We want to make sure that the vaccine car is the first to make it to the finish line, and unfortunately we have a very tough race ahead, because of the [current rate of spread], the new mutations, variants... but we definitely have a huge increase in the number of those infected by the disease in the last several days.
The only way to deal with that is as we have learned from all over the world, is to lockdown. It took some time to convince members of Knesset [that this was the right move] but finally the recommendations of the Health Ministry have been approved by the government, and in two weeks from now we are likely to see a decrease in infections.
I can't tell you right now what our goal is because of all these mutations that are circulating in Israel already, but we want to make sure that there is no increase in numbers over the next several weeks.
And you are confident that a closure like this could have that type of impact?
I think it can have an impact on all of us, if each one contributes to this lockdown. Right now you can see, the atmosphere is positive, people now understand the decision. I think that was the first time that mayors, business people and the general public were asking me to impose the lockdown, because everyone is witnessing the growth in numbers. I sincerely hope that if people will stick to the rules than a couple of weeks from now we will be able to see the descending scale in numbers.
You spoke about how everyone will hopefully enlist in this war against the virus, but unfortunately we see that Israel is still polarized. There are sectors of society, and I don't want to necessarily single out, but I will single out the ultra-Orthodox and haredi sector, the Israeli-Arab sector where we have seen less adherence to restrictions, and we see the numbers there are skyrocketing. Right? We see that the mutation or the variant, whatever you want to call it, is prevalent mostly in the haredi sector it seems like from what I'm reading. Their schools might stay open while our schools will stay closed. What can be done to really make sure that they country as a whole is following what needs to be followed?
We are trying to make sure the country as a whole, as you said, is following the instructions. But I do have to say yesterday, in one of the meetings I had , we had a difficult exchange with one of the participants, one of the leaders of the Israeli business world, who said to me, "What do I have to do? What do us in Herzliya and Tel Aviv have to do with this ultra-Orthodox increase in the disease? They are not sticking to the rules."
I did get very angry and upset, and I said to him what I'm saying to our listeners here: Yes, there were some unfortunate events in the ultra-Orthodox [sector], the yeshivas and cities. But i don't recall any ultra-Orthodox going to New Year's parties in Tel Aviv and Herzliya. I don't recall many ultra-Orthodox people traveling to Dubai for that matter, and breaking all the possible rules and bringing the disease back. I don't recall too many ultra-Orthodox participating in the wedding parties in the Arab sector of Israel with thousands of participants during the pandemic. So unfortunately, every part of the Israeli population and every segment of the Israeli population is negatively contributing to the increase in numbers. So, let's not play this game.
The ultra-Orthodox were the lowest part of the Israeli population in terms of disease just a few weeks ago. This is a very cruel virus. You know, he can beat you in no time at all.
The blame game doesn't help? We all have to do, what we have to do.
Unfortunately, yes. If I could just say, it's this city or this part of the population - they are just an example to all of us. It's not happening. As I said, we see parties, we see prayers, we businesses open when the are supposed to0 be closed and we all unfortunately suffer from the results.
One last question before we let you go. We can't ignore the fact that Israel is going to a new election, and it's coming up in less than two-and-a-half months. Likud, your party, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's, the leader of your party, looks like maybe he is in trouble based on the polls.
If I recall correctly before the last and the previous elections, we were in trouble and according to all the polls we had no chance in the world to form the next government, and it still happened.
I think that two-and-a-half months in Israeli politics even without the virus is a lot, and with this daily changing situation it's a lot of time, we'll see what the results will be.
I have to say quite frankly to you Yaakov is, as a health minister or a senior elected official, I was very disappointed that we had to go to the elections in this present situation of the pandemic. But, what happened, happened. And we will deal with that, and I sincerely hope that Israeli public will look at the details and not just the slogans and nice speeches when they come to vote.