Vaccination nation: Lessons from Israel’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout

David Dizon, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Apr 02 2021 05:28 PM | Updated as of Apr 15 2021 05:04 PM

Caregiver Judith Chavez receives a dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine last December 30, 2020. Photo by Judith Chavez

MANILA—Filipino Judith Chavez had been working as a caregiver in Rehovot City, Israel, for over 2 years when the Jewish state implemented a lockdown to stop the spread of COVID-19 last March 2020. 

Old-age homes (batei avot) and sheltered housing (diur mugan) for the elderly were among the first establishment to be placed under lockdown. 

“Nu’ng nag-lock down noong March 2020, naghigpit sila sa nursing homes. ’Yung mga matatanda ang unang iningatan ng government. Bawal pumunta ng tindahan, bawal kaming lumabas ng pintuan ng building. Pwede kami paikot ikot, basta bawal lumabas,” Chavez, 38, said in an interview with ABS-CBN News. 

[When the lockdown started in March 2020, they became very strict with the nursing homes. The government protected the elderly first. We were not allowed to go to the store, not allowed to step out of the building. We can roam around the housing unit but we were not allowed out.]

Food deliveries became the norm for these elderly homes. If they needed anything — food, vaccines and supplies — young members of the Israeli Defense Forces would fetch these items and bring it to the homes. 

Caregivers staying in these homes were also subjected to COVID-19 swab tests every week. 

In September, restrictions were eased slightly and caregivers were allowed to go out by some employers. A second wave of COVID-19 infections, however, forced the Israeli government to implement more restrictions as cases rose to 140,000. 

On December 30, 2020, Chavez and the 90-year-old Israeli she was taking care of got their first shot of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine right inside the nursing home. 

The first to receive the COVID-19 jabs were senior citizens who were bedridden; health workers simply went to their rooms to administer the vaccines. Those who could walk got their jabs in the nursing home’s large kitchen. 

The second shot was then administered 20 to 21 days later. 

“Alagang alaga kami. Bawal kasi kami mag-expose, so sila ang lumalapit sa amin,” she said. [We were well taken care of. We could not be exposed so it was the [health workers] that would come to us.]

“Pinapahalagahan nila, pinakakaingat-ingatan nila ’yung matatanda [They really value and are always protective of the elderly],” she added. 

A drone picture shows the venue where a concert by Israeli singer Nurit Galron is taking place for people who were vaccinated against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) or those with presumed immunity had to show their "Green Pass" to enter, at Yarkon park, in Tel Aviv, Israel February 24, 2021. Amir Cohen, Reuters File Photo

ISRAEL AS VACCINE LABORATORY

Last March 25, Israel announced that it had administered two doses of COVID-19 vaccine to more than half its 9.3 million population, a world-beating rollout that has helped the country emerge from pandemic closures. 

Israel started distributing Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines on December 19, the day after Hannukah, with eligibility extended to citizens and residents over the age of 16 or some 69% of the 9.3 million population. People are deemed fully protected a week after receiving the second shot.

How did Israel, which at one point last year had one of the highest rates of COVID-19 infections per capita, turn it around with one of the fastest COVID-19 vaccination programs in the world? 

According to the Israel’s Ambassador to the Philippines, Rafael Harpaz, the success of Israel’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout was a combination of many things, including early access to the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines plus ample supply of COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca, as well as a robust public-health infrastructure to implement the mass vaccination plan.

Rafael Harpaz, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the State of Israel to the Republic of the Philippines

To get the vaccines early, the Israeli government provided Pfizer with a unique opportunity to study the real-world impact of the vaccine developed with Germany’s BioNTech. Israel would serve as a “laboratory” for Pfizer, Harpaz said, by sending anonymized medical information about the effects of the vaccine on the population.

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Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also became the public face of the vaccine campaign by becoming the first Israeli to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. 

“The first person to receive the shot on primetime TV was the prime minister . . . And then President Reuven Rivlin was the second. To be a role model for the people especially when you have all this fake news was a crucial issue,” Harpaz said. 

More importantly, he said, Israel had the means to distribute the vaccines quickly through 4 health-maintenance organizations (HMOs) that offer health care to all residents. 

“What is different, I think, from many countries is that [Israel] has a national health system, national health insurance. Everybody in Israel is automatically insured. The way of distribution in Israel is amazing. Each one of us has to have his own HMO. There are four of them and they did the distribution so there is no private sector here. It’s government. The government brought the vaccines. The prime minister, he personally was involved in obtaining it,” Harpaz said. 

Israel officials offered different incentives to entice residents to avail of the vaccines, including free food, small gift items and even tickets to concerts. 

Contact tracing was also important since the start of the pandemic; persons who come in contact with COVID patients received text messages that they need to tested and quarantined.

Even those who have already recovered from COVID-19 were given one shot of the Pfizer vaccine 90 days after recovery “because it gives you much more protection”, Harpaz said.

A picture taken with a drone shows an aerial view of the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth in northern Israel, March 13, 2021. Amir Cohen, Reuters

One motivator for Israel to eliminate the virus quickly through vaccination was time, with more than 820,000 of the country’s 9.3 million population infected with the virus. 

“Quarantine was an issue because discipline is, you know, it's a cultural issue and social issue. It was a big issue in Israel, how do we maintain social distance. And that’s why the numbers were very high, it was very difficult . . But now it's a totally different situation,” Harpaz said. 

Chavez said she witnessed firsthand how Israelis’ attitudes towards the virus changed over time. 

“Nu’ng nag-boom ang pandemic, ang reaction ng Israeli, kapag naka-mask ka, mapapagkamalan ka na may COVID. Ang Filipino kasi advanced, nag-usap-usap kami, ‘O dapat may mask’. Tinitignan kami ulo haggang paa,” she recalled. 

(When the pandemic boomed, the reaction of Israelis was if you’re wearing a mask they will suspect you have COVID. Filipinos think in advance, we would talk to each other, ‘O, we should wear masks.’ And they would look at us from head to foot.)

“Sa second wave, panay ang swimming, wala masks, panay ang parties. E nag-boom ang COVID, dumami na ng husto. Ayun natuto na sila. Nagma-mask na rin. Nu’ng December natuto na sila, may holidays pero di na sila nag sasama-sama. Per bahay na lang holiday celebrations.”

(During the second wave, they were swimming, no masks, frequent parties. And then COVID boomed, and the numbers went up. That’s when they learned, and started wearing masks. Last December, they had holidays but there were no gatherings. Holiday celebrations were in each one’s homes.) 

VACCINATING CAREGIVERS

Harpaz said opening up the vaccination program to everyone in Israel, including Filipinos, was important to bring the COVID-19 numbers down. 

Some 30,000 Filipino caregivers, 400 Agriculture students, staff members of the Philippine embassy in Israel, as well as Filipinos with expired working permits have received free shots of the Pfizer vaccine, according to the Israel embassy in Manila.

“First, we can’t force people to be vaccinated, OK? This is very important, this is the challenge,” the ambassador said. 

“All those OFWs that were already in Israel, plus the 400 TESDA agriculture students and the Filipino diplomats and staff of the Philippine Embassy we give them, if they want, vaccines for them and I know most of them took advantage of this.

“In addition, there are still now every week OFWs that go to Israel. Only caregivers, that’s the only OFWs that are working in Israel. And when they come, after quarantine they get the vaccines immediately.”

Harpaz praised Filipino caregivers for “doing an amazing job in taking care of the most vulnerable Israelis, our elderly people” during the pandemic. 

Israel has also donated protective equipment for the first responders of the Philippine National Police and Department of Defense, as well as distance learning equipment to the Department of Education, water fountains in schools.

An aerial view shows snow falling over the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site (in the foreground) and the Dome of the Rock, located on the compound known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount (in the background) on Ash Wednesday, in Jerusalem, February 17, 2021. Ilan Rosenberg, Reuters

Harpaz said his advice to Filipinos is the same message he would give Israelis: “We need to believe that we are going to get out of this. We need to be strong, resilient, keep social distance, and wear masks.”

“In the end, we will look back at this in the future and say, you know, we learned from it . . . The most important [thing] is to keep the life of people, that people will be healthy… I pray for this country. It's a great country, great people, a resilient people.” — With a report from Reuters

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