Israel began offering a third coronavirus vaccine dose to those over the age of 50 on Friday after Health Ministry Director-General Nachman Ash accepted the recommendation of a government advisory panel of health experts.
Medical staff and those with underlying illness, as well as prisoners and wardens, will also be eligible for the booster.
Last month, Israel became the first country in the world to begin administering booster shots to those over 60, and it will once again be a pioneer in the move to begin giving the third vaccine dose to an even younger age group. As of Friday morning, 775,703 people in Israel have received the booster.
With the ministry announcement, health maintenance organizations began offering appointments for the booster shot to those they insure who fit the new criteria.
According to the Walla news site, the Maccabi health fund said 14,000 appointments were made on Friday by the newly eligible, with 2,000 set to be vaccinated that day and thousands more expected to book over the weekend.
Clalit said that 13,000 people booked appointments with 5,000 vaccinated on Friday, while 5,000 members of the Leumit fund reserved their slots with 2,000 set to get the shot over the weekend. Additionally, 3,000 members of Meuhedet also booked themselves in for the booster.
Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli and Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz both went within hours of the announcement to receive the third dose.
“I really hope that as many people as possible my age, 50 and older, will be vaccinated with the third dose,” Horowitz said. “Now is a critical time. This is the most effective tool we have to stop the Delta variant. We are in a very big outbreak and this is a step that everybody can take.”
The World Health Organization has called for a moratorium on booster shots until at least the end of September in order to address inequalities in global dose distribution.
But Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has said Israel is doing the world a “great service” by administering the third doses and sharing their results.
At Thursday’s cabinet meeting, some on the government panel advocated expanding the age range to those over 40, according to Channel 12 news.
The network said Bennett had been putting significant pressure on health officials, cabinet members and even members of the advisory panel to authorize the shot for over-40s.
Not everyone in the cabinet was on board with lowering the age to 40. Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar argued that the government should start by lowering eligibility for the third dose to those over 50, and only then gradually lowering it further in order to exercise caution, Kan news reported.
Additionally on Thursday, Bennett spoke with Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla and urged him to speed up regulatory approval of the pharmaceutical giant’s COVID-19 vaccine for those under the age of 12.
Bourla told Bennett he views the issue as one of great importance and will work to the best of his ability to speed up the process, according to the Prime Minister’s Office.
Israel’s widened vaccination campaign came a day after the Food and Drug Administration gave authorization for Americans with weakened immune systems to receive a booster dose.
The decision to open up booster shots to those aged over 50 in Israel came as Health Ministry data showed no signs of the virus outbreak slowing.
According to the latest figures on Friday morning, 462 people are in serious condition from COVID-19.
Health Ministry data showed that among unvaccinated Israelis aged 60-plus, there are 120.9 people per 100,000 in serious condition. Among the vaccinated the figure is 19.1 and the partially vaccinated figure was 45.3.
There were 6,083 people diagnosed with COVID-19 on Thursday with a further 1,431 since midnight.
There were 44,188 active coronavirus cases in Israel, with 758 hospitalized patients in total. With seven overnight fatalities, the death toll rose to 6,611.
Agencies contributed to this report.