December 30, 2021 coronavirus pandemic and Omicron variant news

Israel will begin administering a fourth dose of the coronavirus vaccine to people with suppressed immune systems starting Friday.

A decision by the director general of the health ministry, Nachman Ash, to make a fourth dose available to anybody 60 and older, as well as to medical staff, remains on hold, despite it being hailed as a done deal by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett last week.

In response to the announcement Thursday evening, Bennett said in a statement, “Israel will lead the way in administering a fourth vaccine to the Israeli people. Israel’s strategy for overcoming omicron is clear: the greater the wave, the greater the protection we will need to overcome it.”

That more temperate message contrasted with the prime minister’s almost celebratory response just moments after the panel of coronavirus experts announced their initial recommendation for a wider roll-out of the fourth dose ten days ago.

“This is wonderful news … the State of Israel is continuing to stand at the forefront of the global effort to deal with the pandemic … I call on everyone who meets the criteria that the members of the committee have set: Go and get vaccinated,” he had said in a statement on Dec. 21.

Some context: Since that recommendation last week, Ash has been weighing the advice from his coronavirus experts (in favor of a fourth dose,) against data from South Africa and the UK regarding the severity of the omicron variant.

His decision-making also takes place in the knowledge that the Israeli government is desperate to avoid introducing any sort of lockdown measures and has made vaccination the overwhelming priority of its pandemic policy.

In a second decision Thursday, Ash approved shortening the gap between the second and third doses from five to three months because, “in light of the omicron wave, the need to raise the level of immunity among the entire population is growing as fast as possible.”

The number of new cases of the virus in Israel continues to grow steeply, topping 4,000 on Wednesday, more than five times the number two weeks ago.

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