COVID-19 Testing in Israel's Arab Community Drops, as Do Mass Events

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A COVID-19 drive-through testing site at the Arab town of Umm al Fahem, last month.
A COVID-19 drive-through testing site at the Arab town of Umm al Fahem, last month.Credit: Rami Shllush

Coronavirus tests among Israeli Arabs declined by 50 percent within a month, the Health Ministry and officials coordindiating COVID-19 response in the Arab community say, pointing to less willingness to test. However, officials stress that a drop in confirmed cases isn't the result of this alone, but also say there's been fewer mass gathering over the past weeks.

Data collected by the Arab emergency committee, which includes information from all of the country’s Arab communities except East Jerusalem and mixed Arab-Jewish cities, shows the rate of testing has clearly declined between mid-August, when 53 thousand tests were conducted a week, and the last two weeks of September, when the number dropped to 31 thousand and then to 21 thousand.

“We can’t ignore the data,” said Ahmed al-Sheikh, who coordinates the collection of the information. He said the drop in the number of COVID-19 tests may have had an effect on the decline in the number of positive cases.

Drive-through testing sites run by the Magen David Adom emergency medical service and the Israeli army’s Home Front Command have been in operation over the past two weeks in several Arab communities, but the coordinators indicated that the number of tests were also on the decline at the testing sites there.

“We have clearly seen this. A month ago, there was a rather major demand on the stations and people were in line for two hours. Over the past two weeks, including last weekend, the people simply didn’t come.” One coordinator told Haaretz that those numbers were also in line with the data that the Health Ministry's coronavirus department received.

People wearing masks walk in the streets of Nazareth during Israel's second nationwide lockdown, September 23, 2020. Credit: Rami Shllush

Ayman Saif, who is responsible for the government's COVID-19 policy in the Arab community, said that over the Jewish New Year, 12 testing stations were set up in Arab communities and 12,000 tests were administered. Over the past weekend, during the Sukkot holiday, 20 stations were set up, but no more than 5,000 tests were performed.

“It’s clear that there is a drop in the level of testing but on the other hand, there is also a drop in the incidence of infection, and that’s also clear from the data,” he said, noting that "If a month ago the infection rate in the Arab community reached 30 percent of the total infected population, in the past week it dropped to 10 percent."

Saif attributed the decline primarily to curbs on public gatherings in the Arab community, particularly weddings, which were a particular problem in July and August, and which he said had been cut significantly in September, although isolated violations in several communities have persisted.

Prof. Fahed Hakim, the medical director of the Nazareth Hospital EMMS, agreed that there were fewer public gatherings, but said that the rate of infection is still high, particularly infections transmitted among families.

Dr. Mohammed Khatib, a public health specialist, also expressed caution about the assumption that the virus was on the decline in the Arab community. “What is certain is that there is a significant decline in the level of testing, and people who want to avoid being quarantined are not getting tested," he said. “Only those who experience clear symptoms are in touch through their HMOs or at the drive-through sites, so it’s impossible to come to the conclusion that there is a significant decline. We need to wait for the results of the days ahead.”

The Israel Police have also noted a drop in the number of public gatherings in the Arab community, particularly involving weddings. Last week they said they dispersed two weddings, in Tamra and Sakhnin, that had violated limitations on public gatherings. But overall, they said the problem has declined substantially, a senior police officer from the north told Haaretz. When police have been dispatched recently to disperse weddings, the numbers of attendees have been smaller than the hundreds seen in August, he added.

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