Move comes as U.S. and other countries turn their attention to reopening child-centric businesses
TEL AVIV—Israel has extended its Covid-19 vaccine passport system to children who aren’t yet eligible to be inoculated, allowing them to visit cinemas, restaurants and other entertainment businesses as it continues to reopen its economy.
Under the program, children with negative PCR tests will be eligible for a three-day so-called green passport that will be associated with their parents’ passes. The passports take the form of a QR code that can be carried on a smartphone, though their use isn’t always enforced.
Religious-affairs ministry officials had stipulated that only those carrying a green passport could attend a religious festival on Thursday at Mount Meron, where dozens of people were killed in a stampede, but health officials had said it would be impossible to check the status of those attending.
Organizers estimated that some 100,000 people were at the site by midnight.
The country of nine million has led the world’s fastest vaccination program, with nearly 75% of its eligible population fully vaccinated. But given a lack of clinical trial data for children, policy makers haven’t yet extended the campaign to those under 16, meaning about 2.6 million aren’t eligible to be vaccinated.
This has limited the extent to which Israel can reopen its economy without causing further outbreaks. Israel says its solution is a stopgap measure until medical trials demonstrate that children can be safely vaccinated against the virus.
Other countries with high vaccination rates, such as the U.S. and U.K., face similar problems. Herd immunity requires between 70% and 85% of a population being protected, health officials say, and this is impossible in countries like the U.S. and Israel if children aren’t vaccinated. Children under 16 account for 22% of the current U.S. population.
“We haven’t had any outbreaks from green-pass activity over the past eight or nine weeks,” said Tomer Lotan, executive director of Israel’s coronavirus task force. “We are very confident that the green pass is a very effective defense layer on the economic activity in Israel.”
Last month, Israel began offering rapid tests at sites such as hotels and sports stadiums, costing about $10 to $20, which allowed children with negative test results to enter. The expansion will include regular PCR tests that are much more accessible and are free for everybody.
Israeli health officials said they would begin to vaccinate children between the age of 12 and 16 when the vaccine is approved by Israeli and international regulators. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in April that Israel signed new deals to buy millions of vaccines from Moderna Inc. and Pfizer Inc. to begin vaccinating children later this year and launch another vaccine campaign for adults.
So far, many businesses that largely cater to children such as cinemas and amusement parks remain closed. But officials hope the expanded green passports will allow them to reopen next week when additional restrictions are lifted, including the elimination of caps on the number of people frequenting venues using green passports, such as restaurants and stadiums that have been operating at reduced capacity.
Health officials in Israel say it remains an open question as to what role children play in spreading the coronavirus when the adult population is largely vaccinated.
Ran Balicer, chief innovation officer of Israel’s largest healthcare provider, Clalit, said that because the country was the first to introduce the mass vaccination of its adult population, it will be at the forefront of establishing what restrictions can be safely removed without sparking a resurgence of infections.
“We have to try to have a stepwise and gradual approach and are continuously measuring to make sure that we haven’t crossed this invisible threshold that we aren’t sure where it lies,” he said.
Appeared in the May 3, 2021, print edition as ‘Israel Grants Children Access to Vaccine Passes.’