As 2021 begins, and despite being in the midst of a third nationwide lockdown, we in Israel are beginning to see the light at the end of the very long Covid-19 tunnel. This is thanks to an ambitious vaccination campaign that has seen Israel’s health services deliver first doses of the vaccine to 17 per cent of Israel’s population in just over two weeks.
Outpacing other countries by a country mile, Israel is making headlines around the world for its efforts to become one of the first countries in the world to reach herd immunity by vaccinating most of its population against the coronavirus. So far, some 60 per cent of those over 60 have been inoculated and at this rate we’re told Israel will have immunised most of its high-risk population (around 2 million) by mid-January. If fresh vaccine supplies arrive as planned, the expectation is that most of the population could be vaccinated by April 2021, if not sooner.
So how has Israel become the poster child for vaccinations, and what lessons can be learned from the Israeli experience?
It is true that Israel is reaping the rewards of early negotiations with the vaccine manufacturers, which included early delivery schedules (and allegedly a willingness to pay more than market price), but the availability of the vaccine and efficient logistical infrastructure to deliver the vaccines tell only a part of the story of Israel’s success thus far.
In examining how Israel – which has developed a reputation as a start-up nation – has become the “vaccination nation”, three factors stand out:
The universal health-care system
The first is the way its health-care system is set up: Israel has an experienced, highly skilled, community-based universal health-care system, with four public health management organisations (HMOs) competing for members and government funding. Backed by public hospitals, the HMOs have mobilised every available resource to support vaccinations, including setting up drive-in vaccination centres, as they compete to prove they can vaccinate their members quickly and efficiently.
A second, critical component is technology. Israel’s health management organisations are highly digitalised, with computerised records that feed data securely to track the vaccine campaign’s progress and any side effects. The personalised medical records date back many decades, and medical professionals can quickly check that patients who will be vaccinated have no contraindications that might cause problems.
Appointments for vaccinations are made online and through the HMO’s easy-to-use apps, and HMOs have also been sending out daily text messages to their target populations, instructing them on how to book times and locations that work for them. Needless to say, the uptake has been phenomenal. The system is also being used to avoid vaccine loss: if at the end of the day any vaccine doses are left, the HMOs contact additional populations to invite them in at a moment’s notice, thereby avoiding wastage. According to medical sources, Israel has had to destroy less than 0.1 per cent of its doses.
In fact, there is some speculation that Israel’s ability to not just vaccinate quickly but also monitor the effects of vaccination through its digitised health-care providers has encouraged the vaccine companies to use Israel as an international experimental arena to showcase the benefits of fast and effective vaccination.
Effective public communications and public buy-in
The third factor that has contributed to the positive public response has been the communications effort around the campaign. Following initial concern that Israelis would be reticent to take the jab amid uncertainty about its effects, a widespread public-relations campaign was launched across all media outlets, encouraging people to take the vaccine, and explaining the vaccines’ safety and efficacy. The prime minister, health minister and president were the first to receive the vaccine, live on national television, to encourage the population to follow suit.
All of which has created a dramatic demand for the vaccine, now so high that there are concerns that supply may not be able to keep up. Next week, the health services will begin to deliver the second dose to those who have already received their first, and the challenge now will be to accelerate the receipt of further vaccine doses. Speeding up deliveries will be critical to the smooth running of the vaccination programme.
As we look at these developments in Israel, we cannot ignore the worrying situation in the Palestinian territory, where Covid-19 levels are spiralling. The Palestinian Authority, which according to the Interim Agreement is responsible for health and vaccinations, is in negotiations to purchase vaccines for its population in the West Bank and Gaza and the hope is that they can receive the required quantities quickly. Israel should have an interest in ensuring that the Palestinian Authority is in a strong position to begin a similar vaccination campaign.
With infection rates rising in Israel, as elsewhere, a race against time is now underway to outpace the rate of infection with a rapid rate of vaccination, to check the virus and counter the effects of the rising infection rates. The achievements of the Israeli health-care system in this Herculean effort are to be lauded, but we are not out of the woods yet – not by a long shot. With an impressive rate of vaccination comes complacency, and officials are cautioning that safety measures – masks, social distancing and hygiene continue to be essential.
In the high-stakes race to beat Covid-19, the eyes of the many are likely to continue to focus on Israel to see how the story unfolds. The vaccination campaign has generated a lot of hope and optimism, but if Covid-19 has taught us anything over the past few months, it is that being triumphalist too early is a dangerous gambit. The hope is that, with the right infrastructure and resources, effective digitisation, tracking and communication, and sufficient supply of the vaccines, Israel’s swift vaccination drive can finally allow a return to some semblance of normality – whatever that may look like.