Israel Is Entering Second Coronavirus Wave, Reopening Risks Hundreds More Deaths, Government Agency Says

If steps to roll back reopenings and increase public awareness are not taken, Israel may see a thousand new coronavirus cases a day within a month, Center for Information and Knowledge on the Coronavirus report warns

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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A guard takes a shopper's temperature at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, June 18, 2020.
A guard takes a shopper's temperature at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, June 18, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Israel is entering its second wave of the coronavirus outbreak, according to a report released Saturday by the National Center for Information and Knowledge in the Battle Against the Coronavirus, which lays out the most severe warning recently by an official body linked to the health system.

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Experts at the center, most of them military intelligence analysts, warn that if immediate measures are not implemented, the national infection rate can reach a thousand new coronavirus cases a day within a month. The comprehensive death rate may grow by hundreds.

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According to the report, new confirmed cases fell to about 16 a day in mid-May. Over the past week, the number has spiked to around 200 daily diagnoses, with Wednesday and Thursday seeing about 300 a day.

As the number of cases grows, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is weighing a resumption of measures to allow the Shin Bet secret service to track confirmed and suspected cases, which have been frozen since early June and were meant to be replaced by civilian alternatives.

The report's authors claim that the characteristics of this second wave differ from those of the first, but are no less severe.

If measures to curb infection are not implemented and the cases do not drop, the report says, a steep rise in infection and mortality will follow in the next month. "The state of affairs may cause very difficult economic decisions, up to returning to a comprehensive lockdown," the report says. "According to our analysis, this can be avoided with more measured steps, but only if they are implemented within the coming days."

The researchers recommend reconsidering the decisions to relax certain measures made in the past few days, such as opening event halls and allowing cultural events, both to reduce the consequences and to send a different message to the public. They also suggest broadening public awareness efforts on the national and local scale, out of fear that the severity of the issue is unclear to the public.

In addition, they recommend increasing the authority to enforce and municipal enforcement of coronavirus measures in the public space, establishing an effective way to enforce quarantine, achieving an effective framework to cut off the chain of infection and reorganizing the evacuation of patients in isolation to designated facilities.

"To our understanding, if these steps, whose economic costs are relatively reduced, are not taken quickly and decisively," the report says, "the State of Israel may in another month demand very painful economic and social decisions."

The Information and Knowledge Center was established in March, and is staffed mainly by researchers from the IDF's Intelligence Directorate. As of now, the center works under the auspices of the Health Ministry.

Prof. Hagai Levine, an epidemiologist and the chairman of the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians, blasted the center, saying that it was "unprofessional and unserious to release reports allegedly from the Intelligence Directorate that nobody signed off on."

Levine accused the Center for Knowledge and Information of not being transparent, and noted that, by their own admission, they include no epidemiological or public health experts. "The analysis itself is often unprofessional and sometimes incorrect," Levine notes. "For example, in the last report, there is no mention of different populations, and there is no connection between the findings and the recommendations [the center makes]," he said.

"In addition to this, they are preventing different organizations – that do have professional knowledge – access to information." He says that it is "very serious that they prevent epidemiologists from the Israeli Center for Disease Control and regional doctors from accessing the raw data."   

So far, most warnings have been general statements from a handful of senior Health Ministry officials, and those were not backed up by data. A number of other expert panels have also warned against the rise in infections, but hesitated to define it as a "second wave," and claimed that we must wait for other information to make such a decisive claim.

In the past week, the report says, the number of severe cases in Israel rose by about 20. A few weeks ago, new cases were generally concentrated within certain sectors of society (schoolchildren, foreign workers). Now it seems that the infection rate has boomed across multiple sectors and many dozens of locales. The report's researchers are aware that because the testing policy was broadened, the number of asymptomatic patients to about half of all positive test results past weeks – in March-April, they accounted for a quarter of diagnoses. They say the change in the scope of testing does not account by itself for the significant rise in infections.

The report determined that in a few ways, Israel is faring better than it did in March. The health system established and improved its protocols for treating patients and its drug treatments, in a way that will allow it to help reduce mortality. The age of most patients is also younger now than it was during the first wave. The number of patients over 65, the most endangered by the virus, fell from 13 percent to 8.7 percent. Despite this, there are almost no patients who arrived from abroad, which allowed for guaranteed quarantine and easily tracing their whereabouts, and the outbreaks are spread out throughout the country.

According to the center, "Public behavior (not wearing masks or social distancing) and the easing of regulations are expected to continue and to accelerate the number of infections." 

Noa Landau contributed to this report.

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