Health Ministry professionals are convinced that Israel is fast approaching tight restrictions – the cessation of all business activity and the closing of workplaces that come into contact with the public – long before the effect of the vaccination will be felt by the public.
Israel is facing two important milestones in the management of the coronavirus pandemic: One is the numbers determined as the threshold for imposing tight restrictions – over 2,500 new patients a day, and a basic reproduction number of R=1.32 (1.32 people infected by each patient, on average). The second is Israel’s vaccination campaign, which is expected to begin among hospital medical personnel on Sunday and reach at-risk populations by Wednesday, December 23.
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Last week the coronavirus cabinet rejected Health Ministry recommendations to impose a policy of tight restrictions, and sources in the ministry are frustrated by the increase in illness and the absence of preventive steps.
“The vaccination, even with its outstanding effectiveness and assuming that the public will be amazingly receptive, will have an effect nationally only in March at the earliest,” said Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, head of public health services in the Health Ministry. “Meanwhile we have an infection reproduction number of 1.15 to 1.2, which means that every two and a half weeks the number of confirmed cases doubles, as does the number of the seriously ill and the deceased. Without restrictions, in another five weeks the numbers will equal those at the height of the second wave.”
The Health Ministry is very disturbed by the crowding of thousands of Israelis at Ben-Gurion International Airport. “Ben-Gurion is a failure,” says Alroy-Preis, noting that Ben-Gurion was supposed to meet the Heath Ministry’s Purple Badge standard, which includes wearing masks, temperature checks and social distancing measures. She claimed that the enforcement authorities and the Airports Authority are not doing their job – and the result is mass gatherings.
The ministry is also concerned that those returning from abroad, many of whom do not enter quarantine, are importing the virus to Israel. Alroy-Preis called for quarantining everyone entering Israel, even from green countries, but her request was rejected.
The Health Ministry expects hundreds of patients among returnees from the United Arab Emirates, the new popular tourism destination. Testing for the virus upon entry to Israel won’t stop infected people from entering. Alroy-Preis says that such tests will identify a maximum of 3 percent of patients, because secretion of the virus and a diagnosis of infection take place only several days after exposure. Moreover, nobody can be forced to be tested against their will.
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Complacency and euphoria
Most of the efforts in the battle against the coronavirus are now being invested in preparations for the national vaccination campaign, including logistics, training personnel, defining who falls into what category, providing information and approval and registration of the vaccine. The health care establishment estimates that the campaign will lead to complacency and euphoria, and that the path to achieving public immunity will be strewn with unnecessary victims.
There were 2,862 new cases diagnosed in the last 24 hours on Wednesday, as recorded by the Health Ministry. The number of “red” and “orange” communities has increased to 89 – most of them Arab – and almost 60 percent of the illness in Israel is concentrated in them. At the present rate, and with the ongoing Hanukkah gatherings, Israel may require tight restrictions within a few days.
The hospitals are very crowded, although far from operating at full capacity. As of Monday night, there were 683 patients in the hospitals (compared to 505 in early December), with 378 in serious condition (compared to 264). Some hospitals are reporting a reopening of coronavirus wards. Among medical staff, 1,473 have been sent into isolation, compared to 940 two weeks ago.
Even if the vaccination campaign proceeds according to plan, with 60,000 people vaccinated a day, it will take over a month to administer the first dose to 2 million residents. The second dose will be administered 21 days later, and those vaccinated will have to wait another week until acquiring immunological protection – a month after receiving the first dose.
That means that Israel will have to continue living with the virus in the familiar ways – social distancing, wearing masks and practicing personal hygiene – at least until March. On the way, it has to make it through the winter season.