Analysis |

A Coronavirus Disaster Looms Over Israel, but Can Still Be Avoided

With experts divided over the significance of the rise in cases, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu keeps public comments on the virus to a minimum while his social media accounts focus on his trial

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Dr Karina Glick checks a medical ventilator control panel at a ward at Samson Assuta Ashdod University Hospital in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod, March 16, 2020.
Dr Karina Glick checks a medical ventilator control panel at a ward at Samson Assuta Ashdod University Hospital in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod, March 16, 2020.Credit: AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The number of coronavirus cases diagnosed daily has been rising for almost three weeks straight, since the last week of May. From around 20 new cases a day, the number has jumped to close to 200. The daily growth rate in the number of patients is seven to eight percent, meaning this number could double within about 10 days.

These figures explain the worried tone of senior health officials, including Tuesday’s warning by Prof. Siegal Sadetzki – generally the Health Ministry’s biggest pessimist – that Israel appears to be at the start of a second major wave of the virus. An official report released Tuesday said the recent rise in incidence of the illness encompasses many towns and is reminiscent of the initial outbreak in March, at the time of the Purim holiday.

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But even now, these conclusions seem a little premature. Most of the newly infected people are young; some are asymptomatic; and to a large extent, the rise in diagnosed cases reflects a major rise in testing due to a policy change made by the new health minister, Yuli Edelstein.

Moreover, while the percentage of positive tests has risen (from around one to 1.5 percent), it’s still much lower than the rate was in March (over five percent). The rate of increase in incidence of the illness is also lower than it was in March.

Finally, and apparently most importantly, there hasn’t yet been any dramatic change in the critical statistics. Both the number of patients in moderate to serious condition and the number placed on ventilators have increased only moderately, mainly inthe last few days.

Israelis with masks in Tel Aviv, March 2020
Israelis with masks in Tel Aviv, March 2020Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Because seriously ill patients generally reach this stage only two to three weeks after catching the virus, this number may yet rise. But from here to a situation where the health system can’t cope, as reflected mainly in a shortage of ventilators and skilled personnel to treat the patients, the distance is great.

Health Ministry statistics released Tuesday show 258 new COVID-19 diagnoses in 24 hours. This is the highest daily rise in nearly two months, since April 23. Thirty-nine patients are suffering from severe cases, 29 of them on ventilators. 

The first wave of the virus taught us that the group most vulnerable to serious illness and death is the elderly. At the moment, the percentage of senior citizens among newly infected people is fairly low. This may well be another reason for the modest increase in the number of seriously ill patients.

Israeli experts are still divided over the statistical significance of the last few weeks. Some see the increase as a natural outcome of easing lockdown rules and the rapid opening of middle and high schools, with no restrictions or oversight. In their view, a further spread of the disease can still be curbed by an information campaign and enforcement of social distancing rules.

Others, like Sadetzki, think there may be a rapid slide into high incidence of the illness that would again confront the government with a dilemma as to whether to tighten restrictions again.

But the most noticeable development of the past few weeks is the government’s almost complete absence from the picture. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reduced his public comments on the virus to a minimum. Much of the activity on his very active social media accounts is now devoted to his all-out war on the prosecution, the courts and the media.

And though Edelstein has taken some praiseworthy steps, he is busy chasing after Knesset members who refuse to wear masks, as if he were a disciplinary officer rather than the health minister.

From the other half of the government, the Kahol Lavan party, we have yet to hear any meaningful statements about the coronavirus or the economic damage it’s causing. To a large extent, the government seems to be telling the public, “we did what we could during the first wave; from now on, you’re on your own.”

Had this time been utilized to prepare for the winter, when the coronavirus is liable to coincide with the seasonal flu, we could have taken comfort in that. But that isn’t the case.

File photo: An Assistant is seen conducting research for a coronavirus vaccine in a laboratory in San Diego, California, March 17, 2020.
File photo: An Assistant is seen conducting research for a coronavirus vaccine in a laboratory in San Diego, California, March 17, 2020.Credit: BING GUAN/ REUTERS

There are some signs of improvement. The health system’s knowledge of how to treat patients of COVID-19 has grown, the hospitals have more resources (ventilators, staff and personal protective equipment), and this week, an initial agreement was signed with Moderna to buy the vaccine it is developing.

But many deficiencies remain. The education system is stumbling. At many schools, parents are following their own judgment and cutting back on their children’s attendance for fear that they’ll be infected or have to enter quarantine at a time when almost no learning is happening in any case.

Mayors whose jurisdictions include schools where coronavirus cases have been diagnosed have been forced to do their own contact tracing, having concluded that the miinistry’s contact tracing is not thorough enough. Moreover, as this reporter has noted repeatedly, efforts to trace contacts and stop the chain of infection are cumbersome and hampered by many bureaucratic obstacles, some of which seem to have been posed deliberately by the Health Ministry.

Efforts to keep the public informed remain catastrophic. The fines municipalities are imposing on residents and businesses are draconian. The rules are devoid of logic, confused or mutually contradictory (why, for instance, it is permissible to hold weddings with 250 people but not to old small outdoor performances?).

The weekly scandals about VIPS getting special treatment also continue to erode public trust in the authorities.

The collection of information about the spread of the virus is still flawed, and its dissemination to the media, and thus to the public, is confused and contradictory. Two daily summaries are sent out at different times, but they don’t use the same method of counting cases or even the same graphics.

One of the most important statistics is the percentage of daily tests that are positive. But the Health Ministry measures this based on the daily reported results, without noting that some of these results come from tests done a day or two earlier.

Israel is proud of having halted the first wave of the virus at a relatively low cost health-wise (though at an enormous economic price). Yet it failed to craft a process for exiting the lockdown. Instead, this happened in an unplanned fashion that is now contributing to a rise in incidence of the virus.

Nor is this surprising. Israel is generally good at emergencies and much worse at maintaining high standards over time when doing so depends on the authorities functioning and the public’s compliance.

During the first months of the crisis, and later after the disease curve had flattened significantly, Netanyahu boasted that many world leaders were calling him to learn from Israel’s experience. Somehow, we haven’t been hearing that in recent weeks.

On Tuesday, unusually for the coronavirus era, Israel received an official visit from Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and some of his ministers. Greece, which has been in deep economic crisis for a decade, has so far racked up much better results than Israel in its battle against the coronavirus.

In late May there was talk of an agreement between Israel and Greece under which both countries would be deemed safe from the coronavirus, thereby allowing tourists to travel freely between them without being quarantined on arrival. Greece depends on tourism revenue and is eager to bring back tourists, but it’s no longer rushing to welcome Israelis with open arms. Netanyahu and his guests agreed that this arrangement would be postponed until early August. The Greeks presumably want to wait and see whether Israel has really managed to control the virus in its territory.

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