Record Coronavirus Infections Endanger Israeli Health System, Report Says

Coronavirus information center says hospitals are reaching their saturation point, warning specifically of lengthy prayers as High Holy Days near

Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati
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A coronavirus ward at an Israeli hospital.
A coronavirus ward at an Israeli hospital.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

Israel’s increasing rate of coronavirus infection is inching the country’s hospitals closer to maximum capacity, destabilizing the health system, a report by Israel's coronavirus information center said Sunday.

The center’s daily report said that the coronavirus is rapidly spreading in Israel, adding that the rate of infection during the past two weeks is the highest recorded since the outbreak began.

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And that situation could become even more dire with the approach of the Jewish High Holy Days. Lengthy synagogue prayer services, especially in communities with high coronavirus infection rates, will lead to further infections and to a continued rise in illness and death, according to a second report released by the center on Sunday.

The daily report stressed that Israel’s rate of positive COVID-19 tests is one of the highest in the world and that the number of seriously ill patients is on the rise. There were 513 seriously ill patients as of Sunday morning, an increase of 18 since Saturday.

According to the report, the number of daily infections in the past two months has leaped from about 1,500 to about 3,500. The average weekly number of confirmed new cases as of Sunday stood at 3,402 per day.

Over the past two months, the number of tests for the virus has increased from about 25,000 per day to about 40,000 per day. Last week, the number of daily tests climbed to over 40,000 on average. The daily rate of positive results among all the tests is around 9 percent. Between the increased testing and the positive test rate for the virus – a rate that has remained stable or has even risen – increased testing cannot be the only explanation for the uptick in the number of newly confirmed cases.

As for the age of the newly infected, the data show a rise in infection rates among people who are 19 and under. This group now constitutes about 40 percent of newly confirmed cases, while just one month ago they constituted less than 30 percent of the cases. Another group that stands out is the 20–39 age group, which now accounts for about 30 percent of new infections. Only 12 percent of new cases are people age 60 and above, as opposed to 17 percent in the previous virus wave.

Risk of indoor prayer services

A separate report by the center, published days before the start of Rosh Hashanah, cited numerous studies that show that the risk of contracting COVID-1 in an enclosed space is significantly higher than in the open air and that particular activities, including prayer, raise the risk even further. The report cites new studies that have found an increase in the risk of infection when physical conditions in the enclosed spaces contribute to a high viral load or increased exposure to the virus. Such conditions include small or crowded spaces or poor ventilation.

The researchers added that there is mounting evidence that the type of activity conducted in the space could raise the risk of infection, singling out praying, singing, shouting, talking or physical activity. These activities increase the amount of exhaled aerosol that could contain the virus and “greatly increase the risk of infection from the virus and even promote mass infection events by ‘super spreaders,’” the report states.

 The report recommended "imposing specific restrictions on loud talking and singing in closed spaces in keeping with their characteristics, or at least reducing at-risk activities in these spaces.” It also called for specific steps be taken to reduce the risk, such as limiting the time of such activities, the number or participants, ventilating the space and, in particular, requiring and enforcing the wearing of masks.

Heavy load on hospitals in the north

On Thursday, the Barometer research team, appointed by coronavirus czar Prof. Ronni Gamzu to monitor the situation in hospitals, warned in a separate report that the burden on hospitals was not being distributed equally, and that there was greater pressure on hospitals in the north.

Representatives of the team, led by Prof. Idit Matot of Ichilov Hospital, Tel Aviv, met with the coronavirus cabinet to convey the report’s main conclusions. The report stated that “If the trend in infections and hospitalizations of the past few weeks continues without the expectation of moderation of the infections, some of the hospitals are expected to experience damage to quality of care, both for coronavirus patents and others, especially due to the lack of personnel.”

Matot and her colleagues said the personnel problem stems, among other reasons, from the number of staff sent into isolation due to exposure to coronavirus patients. The research team noted they expected the shortage of medical staff to worsen if schools close as a result of a national lockdown, because many staff members would have to stay home to care for children, “and the burden on practitioners will grow,” as the report states.

Hospitals in the north warned as early as last week that due to the growing numbers of coronavirus patients, they were reaching the point where they would have to send patients to hospitals further south. Of the 33 communities where infections are the highest, designated “red” according to Gamzu’s traffic-light system, 19 are in the north. Hospital executives in the region fear that a lockdown on some cities and towns will only produce results in two or three weeks, while new coronavirus wards are already opening due to the intense pressure.

There were 4,158 new coronavirus cases in Israel on Saturday.

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