More than 97% of COVID-19 deaths in Israel over the past month were people who had not been vaccinated, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday, as his government tries to increase turnout for the Pfizer Inc shots.
Around 38% of Israel's 9 million population have received at least one vaccine dose, the Health Ministry says. But government goals of achieving 50% coverage and reopening the economy next month have been challenged as the daily vaccination pace ebbs.
"We are in a national emergency," Netanyahu told reporters.
"I want to give you a jarring fact: Over the last month - the last 30 days - 1,536 people have died (of COVID-19) in the State of Israel. More than 97% of them had not been vaccinated. Fewer than 3% had been vaccinated."
The vaccination drive began on Dec. 19 with a focus on Israelis over the age of 60 and other high-risk groups. Israel has since lowered the eligible age to 16 but sees less urgency among younger citizens who are less prone to dangerous coronavirus complications.
Israeli officials also believe some people are swayed by rumours of potential lasting side-effects from the vaccines.
Dismissing vaccine skepticism as "fake news", Netanyahu added: "We are a vaccination nation. We have vaccines for every citizen, for everyone ... If you go and get vaccinated you are saving your lives."
Earlier on Tuesday, the Health Ministry warned that with the soaring number of coronavirus patients in hospitals, Israel could soon be out of available ECMO (heart and lung) machines used to provide prolonged cardiac and respiratory support for patients in critical condition.
Sources in the ministry further warned that if the issue continues to escalate, they will be forced to choose which patients to connect to the life-saving machines via an ethics committee whose role is to prioritize treatment for patients who have a better chance of survival.
"We are not there yet," the ministry clarified. “But this is a tangible danger in the near future. We never thought we would have to treat over 40 ECMO patients at the same time, yet here we are. We are now reaching our limit.”
According to the Health Ministry, 41 coronavirus patients in critical condition were connected to ECMO machines last week. And while there are about 70 such machines in Israel, the real issue lies in the fact that operating each machine requires two nurses, a dedicated technologist and a doctor, which could lead to shortage in manpower.