Israel’s rate of coronovirus infection – which is among the highest in the world – may be slowing down, according to data from the past few days. But it will take another week or two to see if these preliminary indications reflect a real change.
Health Ministry officials are cautiously optimistic about the possibility of a slowdown, but analysis of the data also show an ongoing rise in the spread of the disease in the ultra-Orthodox community.
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The number of new daily cases per million people in Israel is 720 (based on a weekly average) compared to only 155 on September 3. This is far higher than the United States (128 per million), the EU (92) and well over the global average of 37. The number of daily deaths in Israel from COVID-19 (based on a weekly average) is 3.76 per million people, compared to 1.52 in early September.
Along with these disturbing numbers are two worrisome trends. One is the rise in infections in the ultra-Orthodox community, which constitutes 40 percent of the new confirmed cases over the past two weeks, and has contributed to the rise in the seriously ill patients and deaths, according to coronavirus czar Prof. Ronni Gamzu. The second is the state of the health system, which is suffering extreme overloads that are undermining the health services provided to non-coronavirus patients.
However, the data from the past few days may be indicative of a slowdown. A week ago, on Yom Kippur (September 28) and the following day, September 29, the percentage of the daily tests that emerged positive was 15 percent. That could have been a reflection of the relatively low number of tests (7,700 on Yom Kippur and around 33,000 tests the next day). On September 30 there were more than 9,000 positive tests out of 67,000, a rate of 13.7 percent. On October 1, there 63,600 tests of which 12.1 percent were positive. On October 2, of some 60,000 tests, 11.8 percent were positive, while on October 3, of 23,000 tests, 11 percent were positive.
“It must be said that morbidity is still high, but at least it’s not getting higher,” said Weizmann Institute Prof. Eran Segal, who heads one of the analysis teams accompanying the government’s Magen Yisrael initiative to curb the spread of the virus. Segal said that Health Ministry data show a “significant drop” in the infection coefficient (the number of new infections estimated to stem from a single case) in the Arab community to below R=1. Among the general public there is also a drop to below R=1. “By contrast, in the Haredi community we are seeing that not only is there no slowdown, there’s a rise,” he said, adding that “the number of dead from the coronavirus in the Haredi sector has doubled in a week.”
According to the data analysis by Segal and his team, most of the increase in infections in Israel derives from the Haredi community. Last Thursday, for example, there was a 9 percent increase in the number of confirmed cases in the Haredi community over the previous day, compared to a 6 percent drop in the Arab community and no change in the rest of the population, leading to an overall 2 percent increase on a national level. With regard to patients in serious condition, that same day there was a 6 percent increase in the Haredi community, a 2 percent drop in the Arab community, and no change in the rest of the population. There were 10 percent more deaths in the Haredi community than the previous day, compared to 1 percent more in the Arab community and 6 percent in the rest of the population.
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An analysis of the weekly data shows even more starkly the spike in the infection rate in the Haredi community compared to the rest of the Israeli population. The number of confirmed cases in the Haredi community rose 79 percent between the week of September 16 to 23 and the week of September 23 to 30. In contrast, the number of new cases in the Arab community dropped by 33 percent in this same period, while there was a 1 percent rise of new cases in the rest of the population. Moderate to serious cases shot up by 47 percent in the Haredi community, fell 13 percent in the Arab community and rose 3 percent in the general population between those same two weeks. Even more alarming was the coronavirus death rate, which rose 100 percent in the Haredi community, six percent in the Arab community and 48 percent in the general population in that second week.
According to Segal, the slight slowdown in the overall incidence of infection is the result of the lockdown. But the increase in the spread of the virus within the Haredi community reflects the flouting of the rules and the holding of mass events during the holidays. He cited Yom Kippur, in particular, and said that we have probably not yet felt the full impact of that day on the infection rate in the Haredi community. “As far as [the impact of] Sukkot is concerned, we’ll have to continue to monitor things.”
During a press briefing last Thursday, Gamzu said, “The lockdown was necessary. The numbers [of daily new cases] were rising quickly and significantly from 1,500 to 4,000 and at the start of the lockdown to 7,000. Everyone knows I didn’t want the lockdown but when... the hospitals started to exhibit distress, I didn’t hesitate.” He added that the lockdown was already proving to be effective as evidenced by a drop in traffic and less contact between people. But he added that it would not bring the same reduction in the spread of the virus as the Passover lockdown achieved.