As Long as Israel's Coronavirus Outbreak Is Limited to Schools, No Policy Change Likely

Authorities are avoiding far-reaching actions, while Israel Association of Public Health Physicians chairman says lessons weren't learned from first wave

Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati
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A worker disinfects a classroom at Jerusalem’s Gymnasia Rehavia high school, June 2020.
A worker disinfects a classroom at Jerusalem’s Gymnasia Rehavia high school, June 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

Without stating whether Israel is entering a second wave of coronavirus infections, the health authorities – as well as the public at large, perhaps – understands that the increase in infections over the past week has shifted the atmosphere from one of post-coronavirus euphoria to something else, still undefined at this point.

Israel went backwards over this past week, to a point where there are far more new infections (190 on Saturday) than recovering patients on a daily basis (10 as of Saturday). This is a reversal of the trend and apparently a setback. And yet this can be interpreted with varying degrees of gravity.

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The increase in COVID-19 cases mostly reflects infections at schools, as does the increase in virus tests. Some experts say the wave of infections is related to the heat wave that hit Israel two weeks ago, when the newly appointed health minister, Yuli Edelstein, permitted students to take their masks off in class and the public at large to forgo masks in public spaces.

The Health Ministry and the health maintenance organizations aren’t playing down the school infections, certainly not after the outbreak at Jerusalem’s Gymnasia Rehavia high school, due to the far-reaching spread into the community at large – from schools attended by Gymasia students’ siblings to busing arrangements and after-school activities. In addition, many schools in the capital have been essentially shuttered, as parent committees decide to halt classes or students simply stop showing up.

At this stage the health authorities have all the tools to halt an isolated outbreak like this. Therefore, the approach is to treat this as an isolated incident and to avoid far-reaching actions, which have would impact the educational system as well as the country’s economy. Edelstein has accepted this position for now. However, if over the next few days COVID­­-19 cases start popping up in new communities beyond children and teens, the ministry’s stance may change sharply.

In this context we should remember the special, last-minute press conference that the ministry’s head of public health Prof. Sigal Sadetsky called during the Shavuot holiday to state that there was a problem with how school was being held, and with the behavior of the children. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called a press conference the following day, and expressed a softened version of this standpoint. Since then Sadetsky stated on the TV program “Seder Hayom” that the coronavirus is returning, even though Edelstein forbade senior ministry officials from giving interviews.

The Gymnasia outbreak has shaken the Health Ministry. Over the last week the number of daily coronavirus tests shot up, peaking at 16,160 on Friday. This week, Israel’s 32 laboratories will be reinforced by the lab of the private DNA analysis company My Heritage, which is expected to be able to process 10,000 tests a day. Last week’s increase is partly due to the HMOs unrolling widespread testing at schools with virus cases, some of which have up to 2,500 pupils.

People wearing masks walk in Jerusalem, June 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The percentage of positive test results among the total number of tests is low relative to Israel’s peak infection days; on Friday and Saturday it was 0.8%. This comes after Israel broadened its criteria last week for who is eligible to be tested.

The renewed need to increase the number of tests reveals yet again manpower shortages, as evidenced in the Health Ministry’s decision to forgo a second test for students, contrary to a policy it imposed last week.

The Israel Association of Public Health Physicians states that the increase in coronavirus infections, specifically at schools, was to be expected. “We had valuable time to prepare after the first wave, and it seems like necessary lessons weren’t learned yet. Despite the crucial need to increase manpower and resources within Israel’s public health infrastructure, it hasn’t been reinforced and thus our ability give our best response to outbreaks has been harmed,” stated association chairman Dr. Hagai Levine.

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