Israeli Academics Propose a Return to Work Now, in Groups Divided by Risk

Team of experts say 1.5 million Israelis could go back to the office, with strict controls to remain in place on certain areas

Meirav Arlosoroff
Meirav Arlosoroff
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An electronics store in central Tel Aviv, Israel, April 5, 2020.
An electronics store in central Tel Aviv, Israel, April 5, 2020.Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Meirav Arlosoroff
Meirav Arlosoroff

Finally, the best of Israel’s academic brains have been mobilized to conjure a way to exit the coronavirus lockdown.

An inter-university committee, headed by Tel Aviv University President Prof. Ariel Porat and Weizmann Institute President Prof. Alon Chen, has presented a 27-page document that proposes dividing Israel into zones based on virus risk, allowing more freedom of movement for those living in areas deemed relatively safe.

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The voluntary committee’s work, the most comprehensive exit strategy from the lockdown prepared to date, was the product of scores of academic experts from the country’s seven universities.

The document provides a comprehensive analysis of all the factors – epidemiological, technological, legal and economic – using mathematical models on which to manage the exit. Some 21 professors participated among them specialists in medicine, epidemiology, economics, psychology, law, computer science, quantitative physics and public health.

The document is highly technical, but breaks down the government’s options into two.

One would maintain the strict lockdown now in effect on Israel with the aim of reducing the rate of contagion. The second proposes the opposite – to speed up the rate of infection among Israel’s non-vulnerable population in order to reach the level of herd immunity, a situation in which such a large percentage of a population has become immune to an infection that the risk to others is much more reduced.

The most vulnerable segments of the population, such as the elderly, would remain in isolation.

The committee said that in the absence of adequate testing for the coronavirus and sufficient data, it couldn’t decide between the two recommendations, so it suggests a third, interim solution – a gradual lifting of the lockdown while officials carefully monitor numbers related to the pandemic.

Security forces wearing hazmat suits during an operation in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem, April 6, 2020.
Security forces wearing hazmat suits during an operation in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem, April 6, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

A detailed plan

What’s in the proposal that takes it a step forward is that it presents a detailed plan for lifting the lockdown. The committee recommends dividing Israel into equally sized risk zones based on how much the coronavirus has spread.

Red zones would be subject to a complete lockdown where only essential workers can leave their homes under strict supervision. People in yellow zones would be allowed to leave their homes for work so long as they remain inside the zone. In green zones, residents would be free to go to their jobs, including jobs outside their zone. Those showing coronavirus symptoms would remain in quarantine in all three zones while those who show by testing to be immune would be free to go where they please.

The plan would allow workplaces to re-open, but they would be subject to strict rules on hygiene and social distancing. They would also be subject to a grading system based on the risk they could cause a renewed outbreak of the virus. Those barred from reopening would be exempt from paying rent.

The committee also recommended encouraging employers to have staff work at home by offering tax incentives.

The usually bustling Carmel Market in central Tel Aviv, closed during the coronavirus outbreak, March 26, 2020.
The usually bustling Carmel Market in central Tel Aviv, closed during the coronavirus outbreak, March 26, 2020.Credit: Meged Gozani

Approval to return to work will also be conditional on each worker’s risk rating, which will be determined through an app on his or her smartphone. The app will determine how much each person is permitted to travel. It will also be able to aggregate data to determine whether a place like a beach or public park can be open to the public, subject to restrictions.

The division of Israel into risk zones relies on sophisticated mathematical models that predict the epidemic’s spread. It also relies on high levels of testing for the coronavirus. The committee proposes a rule of thumb that the rate of serious infection may not exceed 2-3% of those with the coronavirus before a gradual lifting of the lockdown is put into effect.

That is a high standard, but it might be eased as more data is amassed through testing. In practice, it would allow another 50-100 serious cases to develop daily for the lockdown to be eased.

A zone would be designated green so long as the number of serious cases doesn’t exceed 100 and the infection rate doesn’t exceed eight percent. Authorities could monitor the situation using location technology as well as artificial intelligence to predict the possible rate of contagion based on people’s movements.

Given the shortage of test kits, the committee recommends a model for sampling the populations of each zone, including children, so that schools can be reopened. It also suggests ideas regarding informing the public, restarting limited public transportation and reopening schools.

The committee believes that a measured exit from the lockdown can already begin. It called for allowing between 900,000 and 1.5 million workers to return to their jobs just before Passover, a number that would grow significantly after the holiday is over in mid-April.

An Israeli soldier enforcing movement restrictions in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim, Jerusalem, April 6, 2020.
An Israeli soldier enforcing movement restrictions in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim, Jerusalem, April 6, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Nevertheless, the experts warn that at this stage it would be wrong to speak about ending the lockdown altogether.

“The mathematical models show that data on the rate of virus’ infection doesn’t allow for a complete release from the lockdown, even in green zones. The infection parameters must be reduced by a factor of 2-3 by social distancing and hygienic measures,” it says.

In addition, the committee says places with unusually high rates of contagion, like the mostly ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, must be given special treatment. It also proposes the option of intermittent lockdowns under which on a week-by-week basis half the population would be permitted to go to work at any one time.

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