The head of the expert panel advising Israel’s National Security Council on the coronavirus crisis said Tuesday that Israel has succeeded in arresting the virus’ spread in the country – and that careful management of the ongoing pandemic would help in preventing another outbreak.
Prof. Eli Waxman, who made these claims in a presentation to researchers from the Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot, added that the main step that must be immediately implemented is creating an efficient method to locate new cases.
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According to Waxman, the steps taken by the government at the beginning of the crisis – particularly limiting flights and cutting commercial activity – played an important part in slowing coronavirus infections. The panel he headed, he said, made a significant contribution to reducing infections, by preventing “dangerous and wrong decisions” recommended by other experts. Such proposals included an earlier reopening of the economy in pursuit of “herd immunity” and testing a sample of the general population at an early stage, rather than with a focus on symptomatic cases and on areas where outbreaks have occurred, he said.
Waxman argued that adopting the “herd immunity” model – a step that was avoided by most Western countries (with Sweden taking the middle ground and implementing some of its elements) – could have led to tens of thousands of cases in Israel, inundating hospitals to the point of collapse. According to Waxman, limited testing of a random sample of thousands of citizens at an early stage would have led to a waste of resources that were lacking at the time. Instead, he said, it was better to test and track down actual cases. Waxman also said he believes that some of the steps taken by the government in mid-April to alleviate the lockdown were approved too hastily “because of pressure.”
In Waxman’s opinion, the experts defined targets for the government and drew up a plan for the ongoing management of the pandemic in a way that allows safely reopening the country. The main shortcoming, he said, has to do with the creation of a “rapid investigation body” that would allow contact tracing of every new case– locating all of the people that person was in contact with in order to isolate them and prevent further infection.
In his presentation, Waxman wrote that “stopping a renewed outbreak is dependent on severing the chains of infection for every verified patient – from suspected case to isolation in 48 hours.” He cited a number of methods: “A rapid-testing system – from symptoms to a test result in less than 24 hours, some 10,000 daily tests to find the chains of infection… testing target populations – all those who have symptoms and are suspected patients, people in isolation who were in direct contact with someone infected, and people who come in contact with large crowds or high-risk populations.”
The rapid-testing system, the presentation added, has to be responsible for the entire process, “from suspected case to isolation.” It must be able to test some 50 to 100 verified patients a day, “with a growth capability of a factor of 10 within a few days.” According to the presentation, the body assigned with this “is being established under the initiative of the expert team and according to its definitions, [and the team] helped build it in the face of systemic problems.”
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Waxman concluded that “the pandemic has been stopped and is under control. A continued responsible policy of gradually returning to activities in accordance with recommendations, with completion of the rules for regulation and enforcement and a continuation of public cooperation, would maintain a low level of cases (several dozen a day), which would allow for a safe environment for everyone and a safe management of the pandemic alongside a functioning market and society until a vaccine is found.”