BEIT SHEMESH, Israel (JTA) — Joshua Brook was relaxing with his partner one evening when a text message popped up in one of his group chats: Extra COVID-19 vaccines were available right then, at Jerusalem’s largest soccer stadium.
Brook, 29, was skeptical. He had received several similar messages earlier in the week that ended up being hoaxes. Still, he decided to take a chance. He and his partner hopped in their car, drove through Jerusalem’s winding streets and, 25 minutes after he saw the text, made it to the stadium — which now houses a giant vaccination clinic.
It became clear as they arrived, a little before 7 p.m., that they were far from the only ones to get the message. The crowd ballooned from 200 to 500 and then 1,000, standing in a single-file line snaking around the outer wall of the stadium.
As the night wore on, nurses would emerge occasionally and ask everyone to go home, explaining that there weren’t nearly enough extra doses to vaccinate the whole crowd. Then other nurses would come out, saying that, yes, there were some extra doses after all.
Slowly the crowd began to dissipate. By 10 p.m., when Brook and about 50 other stragglers were the only ones left, a nurse admitted them into the stadium, where they were quickly processed and injected.
He had been waiting more than three hours. Once inside, it took Brook less than two minutes to get the shot. The next morning, he found that the appointment time for his second shot was already available on his health plan’s app.
“There have been a lot of WhatsApps floating around claiming that at certain places they had extras, and people arrive only to find that the information was false,” he said. “I happened to go the one time it was true.”
Israel has already given the first dose of the vaccine to over 2.4 million adults in a total population of 9 million, a far higher proportion than any other country. Approximately 800,000 Israelis have received both doses.
Israel’s vaccination success — accompanied by a spike in COVID cases — is partially due to the country’s universal health care system, its tech savvy and its small size. But it’s also because Israelis like Brook have been jumping at the opportunity to get their shots, whether technically they are allowed to or not.
At the time of Brook’s vaccination, the national vaccine campaign was limited to those 60 and over as well as frontline medical personnel. It has since been expanded to anyone over 40, and the government hopes to have all adults vaccinated by the end of March.
But in Israel, rules are often seen as just another obstacle to overcome. And because of the country’s distribution system, lots of ineligible people are being vaccinated.
Israel’s health clinics are using the vaccine developed by Pfizer, which must be stored in ultra-low temperatures and used within a short period after being unpackaged. The doses have a short shelf life and cannot be refrozen, so clinics make an effort to use all the doses they take out.
“The explanation I heard is what everyone is saying: They take out trays from the freezer and can’t put them back,” said Rafi, a man in his late 40s from this Jerusalem suburb who declined to give his last name. “If people don’t show [up] to appointments, or they have less appointments than vials out, they give to anyone rather than throw them out.”
So Israel’s health care system, which is run through four networks of clinics, has been distributing excess vaccines, with nurses frequently sending out unauthorized invitations on WhatsApp that are then shared widely on social media.
“[Those] who want to get vaccinated are invited to the clinic at 21 Herzl St. [in] Hadera,” one such message announced to a Facebook group called “Corona vaccines among friends,” which has 62,000 members. “They said that there’s no age limit.”
“Thanks we were able to get vaccinated!” someone replied the next morning.
Health care workers aren’t actually allowed to send messages like that. But one nurse said officials tend to look the other way.
“There are tons of empty appointments, so nobody is taking anyone else’s doses,” said the nurse, who didn’t give her name because she could get in trouble for sending the texts. “Unfortunately, this has to be in an unofficial way.”
The government has cracked down on some hospitals that have broken the rules. Early this month, it stopped providing vaccines to Sourasky Medical Center in Tel Aviv, which had vaccinated thousands of teachers at a temporary clinic in the city’s central Rabin Square. The government argued that the hospital had violated vaccination guidelines, which the hospital contested. Nine days later, the hospital announced it would reopen the clinic.
There have also been reports that employees at Israeli hospitals are illicitly securing vaccines for family members. Staffers in the Prime Minister’s Office have received shots despite being ineligible, according to The Times of Israel.
One person who broke the rules worried that jumping the line would carry a social stigma. Moshe, from the northern city of Haifa, got his vaccine after visiting a clinic just before closing time. He asked that his name or age not be published because he wanted to avoid being scolded for the early vaccination.
But no one else who spoke to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency relayed that concern. In fact, Israelis who are vaccinated contrary to regulations frequently brag about it, posting pictures on social media and expressing relief.
And Moshe was vaccinated despite any compunctions. At the clinic, he asked if vaccines were available.
“The nurse at the entrance wasn’t sure, but a lady leaving [the clinic] who was clearly under 60 said yes,” he recalled. “So the nurse told me to go to room 18, the lady with the clipboard took down my name and identification number, and then seven minutes later they called me in and I got vaccinated.”
Israelis haven’t only gone to their hometown clinics. Thousands of Jewish Israelis have been making their way to Arab-Israeli villages, where there has been a lower turnout for the vaccination drive than in Jewish communities.
“I like the fact we’re vaccinating together here, Jews and Arabs, and ending the pandemic together,” one Jewish Israeli told The Times of Israel. “This makes me happy.”
As vaccination numbers ramp up in Israel, COVID cases across the country are spiking. On Wednesday, the country recorded a 9% positive test rate.
In light of those numbers, those who were able to be vaccinated early are glad they didn’t have to wait — even if it meant bending the rules. Rafi, the man from Beit Shemesh, said that once he got inside the health clinic, getting his shot took just a little extra finagling.
“I asked one nurse if I could get it, and she was very nice and pleasant and said sure,” he said. “When it was my turn, a different nurse was available. She asked me why I was there and who said I could get the shot. I said the other nurse said I could get it. She wrinkled her nose and said ‘OK.’”