As new information on the Omicron variant continues to emerge, Israel’s public health experts are calling on the government to improve its messaging on the COVID-19 pandemic.
Prof. Nadav Davidovitch, Director of the School of Public Health at Ben-Gurion University and a member of Israel’s national advisory board for the pandemic, said that there should be a greater emphasis on long-term goals and not just on pushing vaccinations.
“The government should do a much better job in explaining its strategy,” Davidovitch said. “The strategy is to learn to live with the pandemic, but with measures we know are useful and targeting specific groups.”
Perhaps more importantly, people need to understand that the virus is not going to disappear, he added.
We should not be “giving a false hope that we’re going to beat COVID-19,” Davidovitch said. “We’re not going to win; we’re going to learn to live with it.
“The whole discussion about waves is counterproductive because we’re in a pandemic and unless we can vaccinate in large proportion all around the globe, we’re going to see more and more variants emerge,” he explained.
A new Israeli study showed that people who were vaccinated with two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine had nearly no neutralizing ability against the Omicron variant.
Those who had received three shots were four times less protected against infection with the new variant but the booster did protect against severe disease, Prof. Gili Regev-Yochay, head of the Infectious Diseases Unit at Sheba Medical Center, said at a press briefing Saturday night.
Another study conducted in South Africa last week found that two Pfizer shots appeared to be 40 times less effective against the Omicron variant than earlier iterations of the virus.
In response to these findings, senior Israeli health officials have said that a fourth dose of the vaccine could be made available as early as next month. Some 1 million Israelis who have received two doses of the vaccine have yet to get their boosters.
The low immunization rate prompted Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Sunday to warn that a lockdown could be on the horizon.
“I understand that there is what is called ‘COVID fatigue,’” Bennett said. “People are tired of hearing and talking about it. I very much understand this feeling. But the truth is that the situation in Israel is significantly better than almost anywhere in the world, significantly.”
Public health experts have cautioned against strict health measures, warning that they may end up being counterproductive.
“When you’re talking about encouraging vaccination, we need to do it more with positive incentives because if you push too hard … then finally you can get resistance,” Davidovitch argued, adding that he believed everyone would be required to get a booster shot on a yearly basis once the virus eventually reaches the stage of endemicity.
Prof. Hagai Levine, chairman of the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians and an epidemiologist at the Hebrew University-Hadassah Braun School of Public Health, said that the key to combating pandemic fatigue is communication.
“It’s understandable that the public is a bit fed up,” Levine said. “Information needs to be transmitted in an organized and believable way, and not drop by drop from all kinds of leaks and different sources.”
It is not yet known if fourth doses will be required for the entire population in the coming months. The decision needs to be made based on scientific data, Levine said.
“If we need to get vaccinated, then that’s what we need to do,” he related. “The issue is that we need to work with the public in a professional and transparent manner, and not confuse them. At the moment we’re not doing this well enough.”
Getting vaccinated, maintaining social distance, avoiding crowded areas, and focusing on proper hygiene remain crucial in the battle against the spread of the new variant. Ever-changing regulations coupled with poor enforcement have resulted in a worrisome measure of public apathy in Israel, Levine contended.
“We have to enable the public to make their own decisions based on risk levels,” he asserted. “We have not yet found the correct balance when it comes to this.”
Article written by Maya Margit and republished with permission from The Media Line.