Coronavirus: Israel's vaccination campaign runs out of steam

Sourasky and Hadassah have stopped vaccinating, and the Maccabi health fund have stopped making new appointments.

The empty Maccabi vaccination center at the Pais Arena in Jerusalem at 2:30 p.m. on January 5, 2020. (photo credit: HANNAH BROWN)
The empty Maccabi vaccination center at the Pais Arena in Jerusalem at 2:30 p.m. on January 5, 2020.
(photo credit: HANNAH BROWN)
There were more people waiting for their orders outside the Aroma coffee bar at the Pais Arena in Jerusalem on Tuesday afternoon than being vaccinated at the Maccabi Healthcare Services vaccination center inside. There could be no clearer sign that the first and very successful phase of Israel’s vaccination campaign is coming to an end.
At 2:30 p.m., only three Maccabi members were there to be vaccinated, and others who were there at 9 a.m. reported a similar emptiness.
At the Clalit Health Services testing center at the same site there were a few more people, about 15 in the afternoon. But it’s a far cry from the crowds that swarmed the site since the vaccine campaign was opened to the over-60 public two weeks ago.
The empty chairs at the vaccination centers show that the health funds are taking a step back from the fast pace that led to more than 1.37 million vaccinations so far.
While Health Minister Yuli Edelstein and other officials have repeatedly promised that there is enough supply here for everyone who was vaccinated once to receive a second dose, the health establishment does not want to take a chance on giving out more first doses right now.
In a statement Tuesday night, Clalit said: “We won’t schedule any more COVID-19 vaccination primer shots until more arrive” and until “more is known about the vaccine stocks” they have access to.
The Meuhedet Health Maintenance Organization has also said it is running out of vaccines.
Over the past few days, Maccabi members with appointments for next week were asked to move up their appointments and were sometimes asked to show up in just a few hours.
Callers to Maccabi on Tuesday were told the health fund was no longer making vaccine appointments. And while at first, the health funds were very relaxed about vaccinating under-60 spouses who came along with their over-60 partner to vaccination centers, that policy has ended at Maccabi.
While vaccinating spouses may seem like an understandable step, people are questioning why thousands of vaccines have been given to people in their 20s and even teenagers. The explanation given over and over is that when over-60 people with appointments are no-shows, there are vaccines left at the end of the day that must be used or thrown away.
The lion’s share of these, according to many reports from around the country, have been going to technically proficient younger people who track the availability of these doses through Facebook groups, apps and WhatsApp groups, while the elderly who may have trouble getting to vaccination centers and difficulty changing appointments if they are ill may be left out in the cold.
There have been questions about why there have been such high surpluses of unused doses at the end of the day, notably at the vaccination center in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, where 4,000 teachers were vaccinated on Monday.
 Israel Teachers’ Union head Yaffa Ben-David and other representatives of school staff have been calling for teachers to be given priority for vaccinations because the schools have stayed open during the current lockdown period.
Education Minister Yoav Gallant and Edelstein have said they would look into the matter. But there has not been any change in the policy, which initially gave vaccines to health professionals and then opened up a day later to anyone over 60, as well as those with chronic illnesses.
The Rabin Square vaccination center was administered by the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality and was receiving its vaccine supply from Tel Aviv’s Sourasky Medical Center, as well as using Sourasky’s medical staff to administer the vaccines.
In an unusual step on Monday evening, Edelstein ordered that Sourasky stop receiving any vaccines. The Health Ministry said Edelstein views the hospital’s decision to give vaccines to those who are not in a group approved for the virus as a serious breach of the ministry’s guidelines.
The Health Ministry said in a statement: “The minister instructed the director-general of his ministry, Prof. Chezy Levy, to stop the vaccination allocations to Ichilov Hospital [Sourasky Medical Center] and to examine the subsequent vaccination allocations to the hospital. This is a national resource and should be treated as such. The minister calls on all the vaccinating bodies to vaccinate solely in accordance with the guidelines of the professionals in the Health Ministry.”
Sourasky Medical Center director-general Ronni Gamzu, who was coronavirus commissioner for several months, said in a statement on the hospital’s Facebook page: “The hospital acted according to the Health Ministry’s guidelines for preference” in which over-60 people are given preference and then teachers and police officers are next in priority.
There has been controversy over the fact that some police officers and soldiers under 60 who work in the field with people who have broken quarantine regulations have been vaccinated, as have 180 airport workers who have come in contact with many travelers returning from countries designated as red.
“More than that, I find it difficult to understand why the Health Ministry supports police vaccination but punishes teachers’ vaccination when they are in the same group of preference and even more as they are entrusted with caring for those who are dearest to us,” Gamzu said.
During his tenure as coronavirus commissioner, he frequently clashed with some politicians and was extremely critical of the government’s handling of the crisis in an interview broadcast on Channel 12’s Fact newsmagazine show last Thursday.
Explaining the decision to vaccinate teachers, the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality said Tuesday in a statement: “In light of the Health Ministry’s decision last night to temporarily freeze the transfer of vaccines to Ichilov, the vaccination center in Rabin Square will not operate today.
“The teaching staff was vaccinated yesterday in coordination with the Ichilov Medical Center and against the background of the fact that the educational institutions have become the main focus of infection. The Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality considers the vaccination of teaching staff to be a top priority for a [return to] routine alongside corona. Residents who were scheduled to receive the vaccine today were notified of the postponement of the appointment to a new date to be set upon receipt of approval to resume vaccination.”
Vaccination of the teachers was a “judgment call” that “prevented thousands of vaccines from being thrown into the garbage,” Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai said Tuesday night at a press conference in which he introduced new members of his Israelis Party.
Huldai posted similar sentiments on his Twitter account early on Tuesday, saying: “Well done Gamzu... Edelstein, small politics is not us. This is how we take care of business.”
But others accused the mayor of playing politics.
One user called Think4yourself tweeted: “You’re right this does not seem to be small politics. This seems like a big corruption.”
Most hospitals around the country are continuing to vaccinate, including Rambam Health Care Campus in Haifa and Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer.
But Hadassah-University Medical Center in Jerusalem on Monday said it would close its vaccination clinic without inoculating as many as 40% of its staff of about 6,000 people.
Mayan Hoffman and Hagay Hacohen contributed to this report.