Last spring, Israel’s remarkably swift vaccination campaign was seen as a global model. Coronavirus infections plummeted, an electronic pass allowed the vaccinated to attend indoor concerts and sporting events, and distancing rules and mask mandates were eventually scrapped.
Israel offered the world a hopeful glimpse of the way out of the pandemic.
A fourth wave of infections is rapidly approaching the levels of Israel’s worst days of the pandemic last winter. The daily rate of confirmed new virus cases has more than doubled in the past two weeks, making Israel a rising hot spot on the international charts.
Restrictions on gatherings and commercial and entertainment venues were reinstated this week, and the government is considering a new lockdown.
Some experts fear that Israel’s high rate of infections among early vaccine recipients may indicate a waning of the vaccine’s protections over time, a finding that contributed to a U.S. decision Wednesday to begin offering booster shots to Americans widely starting next month.
The vaccine may be less effective at preventing infection with the highly contagious delta variant, now the primary version of the virus in Israel. And the first cohort to be vaccinated was an older group whose immune systems may have been weaker to begin with.
The vast majority of Israel’s older population had received two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine by the end of February, and by now about 78% of the population age 12 and older are fully vaccinated.
Seeing infection levels dropping in the spring and determined to reboot the economy, Israel retired its electronic pass system, eased travel bans and lifted all other restrictions. The last to go was the indoor mask mandate June 15.
However, as summer approached, infections began to spiral. School was out, families crowded local hotels, and up to 40,000 people a day were flying abroad. After many days of zero COVID-19 deaths in June, at least 230 Israelis have died this month.
Unlike previous epicenters of infection in Israel’s crowded, less-vaccinated ultra-Orthodox communities, this scourge primarily took hold in well-vaccinated, middle-class suburbs.
Israel is now pinning its hopes on booster shots. Beginning with those 60 and older and quickly expanding the drive to those 50 and older, more than 1 million citizens have already received a third dose this month.
By Isabel Kershner
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