Israel launched a first-of-its-kind serological survey of children in the country on Sunday, three weeks before the national school year begins. The first day’s survey included tests in several ultra-Orthodox cities and produced a headline-making result: approximately one in every five children tested turned out to have antibodies to COVID-19.
This result could indicate that the pandemic has spread much more widely among children than previously thought, though one of the experts who led the research said it was too soon to draw wider conclusions from the initial data.
As some 250,000 ultra-Orthodox students returned to school around the country on Sunday, the Health Ministry – in conjunction with Sheba children’s hospital and the IDF Homefront Command – carried out antibody tests at multiple sites in the Haredi cities of Modi’in Ilit, Elad and Kiryat Ye’arim.
Dr. Itai Pessach, director of the Edmond and Lily Safra Children’s Hospital at Sheba Medical Center, said that parents in those locations offered “amazing cooperation” and thanked those who chose to bring their children to the testing sites.
He said the goal of the research is to “make it possible for schools to function and for children to study” this year, despite the rapid spread of COVID-19 in Israel in recent weeks.
Israeli policy dictates that people who have been inoculated against COVID-19, or who have previously had the virus, are exempt from entering quarantine if they are exposed to a person who has tested positive for COVID-19. Children under 12 are currently not being vaccinated and, as a result, once they are exposed to someone who has the virus, they must isolate for at least seven days. That is, unless they have antibodies against COVID.
Pessach explained that the aim is to find out which children had already had the virus without showing any symptoms – a common occurrence in young people. “If we know they had the virus before and carry antibodies, then they don’t automatically have to quarantine if a classmate has an active case,” he said.
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A spokeswoman for Sheba Medical Center said that, overall, in the areas in which its staff was involved in the research, about 1,000 children were tested with, on average, 21 percent testing positive for COVID antibodies. The spokeswoman emphasized that this number does not include children who were already known to have had COVID-19.
Pessach emphasized that it is “too early” to say if this represents a national phenomenon, or if it is an indication of higher rates of antibodies in the ultra-Orthodox community. “We will continue to work on this survey and hopefully in a few weeks we’ll be able to say something more conclusive,” he said.
Out of 995 tested children aged 3 to 12 in Modi’in Ilit, 18.9 percent were found to have COVID antibodies. In Elad, 24.2 percent out of 454 youngsters had COVID antibodies, while in Kiryat Ye’arim (Telz-Stone), 12.3 percent of the 747 children who underwent the test returned positive results for antibodies. The overall average, including all sites reported by the Health Ministry, was 18.46 percent.
Israeli Haredi students returned to school three weeks before the rest of the country’s pupils are slated to return on September 1. Hence, ultra-Orthodox towns were chosen as the first sites for the survey, Pessach said.
On Monday, a source who belongs to one of the teams advising the government on the pandemic told Haaretz that the program will be a
"recipe for the mass quarantine of students and their families, which in the end could very well lead to a shutdown of entire schools, and even to a closure of the entire education system."
Last October, Israeli health officials reported that the ultra-Orthodox community accounted for at least 34 percent of all COVID-19 cases in Israel at the time, despite comprising just 12 percent of the total population. In March, Health Ministry analysis found that more than 30 percent of those infected in public spaces had visited synagogues and yeshivas, or were exposed to the coronavirus at them.
However, in the latest wave that began last month with the spread of the delta variant, there are no signs or indications that the ultra-Orthodox population has had more cases per capita than other parts of Israeli society.
In addition to widespread antibody testing, the government plans on monitoring the rate of disease in the education system via rapid coronavirus tests in order to detect outbreaks.
“This test is part of a larger plan that was approved by the prime minister [Naftali Bennett] and involves many partners,” Pessach said. “We’re all united in one goal: to allow as many children [as possible] to safely study during this school year.”