Israeli Experts Fear ‘Double Whammy’ Amid Flu-shot Shortage
Influenza cases could overwhelm health system this winter as country continues to grapple with coronavirus pandemic
Amid a global shortage of influenza vaccinations, public health officials in Israel fear they could fail to receive enough of the four million ordered doses on time.
With approximately 100,000 vaccinations administered early this week, shots are being reserved for the elderly and those with serious health conditions. While the remainder of the doses are expected to arrive by early November, it is not at all certain they will show up.
The consequence could be catastrophic if hospital emergency rooms are overrun by patients with cases of flu that could have been prevented or rendered less severe if sufficient vaccines were available.
Prof. Amnon Lahad, Jerusalem district administrator for the Clalit Health Services sick fund, says that Israel intends to buy a total of four million shots, which is a little more than double what the nation normally orders.
“All the Western countries tried to buy more flu shots [than usual] and I wonder if we will get them – and mainly, if we will get them in time,” Lahad told The Media Line.
All the Western countries tried to buy more flu shots than usual and I wonder if we will get them – and mainly, if we will get them in time
“If you don’t finish the vaccination by the end of November, middle of December at the latest – and we already are [more than halfway] there – it’s useless,” he explained.
Lahad also heads family medicine at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, as well as the National Committee for Primary Care, which advises the Health Ministry.
“If we don’t reach something like three million immunizations,” he stated, “it will not be good.”
If we don’t reach something like three million immunizations, it will not be good
Prof. Nadav Davidovitch, director of the School of Public Health at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, also worries about the arrival of the vaccines.
“Nothing is definite in the age of corona,” he told The Media Line.
Lahad adds that the locales for inoculation are also an issue. Normally, this is done at primary-care centers, something that is not ideal during a pandemic.
“We don’t want to immunize in the clinic because it’s crowded, so the Health Ministry had to push for places to immunize [that are] away from the clinics, and not all of that has been [arranged],” he said.
We don’t want to immunize in the clinic because it’s crowded
Davidovitch says the global shortage of shots is primarily due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“The production system now is a little slower because of all the lockdowns and restrictions,” he noted. “The more important factor is the higher demand for them [due to the pandemic].”
Production is more complicated than for other vaccines, he adds, as the virus changes every year.
Lahad notes that Israel’s health-care system is not equipped to handle a double hit from both the coronavirus and the flu, in part due to a lack of focus on primary care, which is the front line for preventing hospitalizations – something that should be reserved for the sickest of patients.
“The primary [care] clinics will not bear the strain, which means emergency departments [at hospitals] will overflow,” he said.
“I don’t think the Health Ministry put enough focus on community clinics,” he continued. “I don’t see any major changes in primary care, not only with the influenza shot, but regarding everything else, such as separate rooms for people who have fevers, increasing the size of waiting rooms, building tents outside so people are not crowded [in a confined space].”
The ministry did not respond to The Media Line’s request for comment in time for publication.
Lahad adds that physicians are being forced to devote more time to paperwork due to the pandemic.
“Family doctors spend something like two or three hours a day on corona bureaucracy. I’m not talking about treating patients but writing letters, releasing patients from home care, etc., and that’s not serious if you have a lack of manpower,” he stated.
“You need to find other people who will take care of the bureaucracy: medical students, physician assistants, paramedics,” Lahad explained, referring to the fact that the nurse’s union has refused to discharge coronavirus patients.
Davidovitch is not as concerned about the stress on the health care system from influenza patients.
“This is a great challenge, but many contingency plans exist that were prepared during the first period of corona. They include many different steps, not just vaccines of course. It’s about strengthening the health care system’s workforce and infrastructure,” he pointed out.
“We hope that because of… masks and physical distancing, there may be a real reduction in the influenza rate this year, as we have seen in other parts of the world,” Davidovitch added. “We cannot count on it, but we [have] hope.”
We hope that because of… masks and physical distancing, there may be a real reduction in the influenza rate this year, as we have seen in other parts of the world
He is optimistic that more people will get the flu shot than in previous years because of the pandemic. Such motivation might be moot, however, if the vaccines are not there to meet the demand.