Israel’s Health Ministry assesses that 5.5 percent of Israelis have been infected with the coronavirus, according to the results of antibody testing conducted between July and September on a sample of about 55,000 people across the country.
According to the survey, Israel is therefore still very far from achieving so-called herd immunity, which, experts say, requires more than a third of the population to have been infected, at the very least.
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The number of cases in ultra-Orthodox communities is five times higher than elsewhere and the number of cases among children aged 10 to 18 is the highest relative to other age groups.
The study was initially planned to encompass 150,000 participants then reduced to 75,000 in 191 communities, but in practice only 55,000 people were sampled. The samples were done at health clinics where patients had come for blood tests for various reasons, based on a sample population defined ahead of time.
According to the results of the survey, men had a higher rate of coronavirus infection than women – 4.9 percent versus 3.1 percent. The rate of infection was highest among children aged 10-18 (8.1 percent). Jerusalem had the highest rate of infection in the country, with 9.5 percent; following it were the center with 2.9 percent; Tel Aviv with 2.2 percent; the north with 1.9 percent and Haifa with 1.1 percent.
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In large communities, those with a population higher than 50,000, the percentage of infected people was 4.3 compared to 3.2 in mid-sized communities and 3.4 in small communities. In non-Jewish communities, the rate of contagion was lower at 2.1 percent compared to 3.6 percent among Jews and 5.5 percent in communities with a mixed population.
The Health Ministry plans to do further surveys in order to ascertain the degree of exposure of the population to the virus. “Antibody testing may be adopted in the near future as a method for identifying people infected in the past,” a statement said. “This will help to discover people recovering from the illness and to shorten isolation periods, as well as to avoid isolation for people who were ill in the past but have recovered.”
The ministry warned however that “high antibody levels do not necessarily point to any long term immunity,” emphasizing again the importance of hygiene habits, wearing masks and social distancing.
Testing for antibodies partly aims to figure out the gap between the number of confirmed cases and number of those who come down with the illness. But it is still not clear how effective these tests are. For example, while taking plasma from recovering patients to help those who are ill, it turns out that in 17 percent of cases no antibodies were found, and in other cases only small quantities of antibodies were present.
A sample serological study published in June estimated the exposure to coronavirus in Israel at 2.5 percent of the population, a figure that reflected a 10 times higher rate of illness than had been diagnosed at the time. The national survey was launched against the backdrop of strong criticism by the director of the Central Bureau of Statistics Prof. Dan Pfefferman, who warned that by the end of June the ministry’s serological survey “will lead to biased and not representative results” due to the way people were sampled for the survey.