For Better or Worse, Israel Is Reveling in That 'End of Coronavirus' Feeling

But the bottleneck in testing still needs to be unclogged, and the goal of quickly finding the people an infected person has been in contact with seems a distant dream

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Israelis enjoy a sunset, mask-free, at a beach in Tel Aviv, May 2, 2020.
Israelis enjoy a sunset, mask-free, at a beach in Tel Aviv, May 2, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

It happened more quickly than we thought. Israel is deep into the feeling that the coronavirus crisis is over. After a month and a half of quarantine, Israelis have had it.

Problems making a living, strict decrees, and a bit of panic in the government and the television studios wore down Israelis’ patience. People started going outside in droves and the government had to make decisions in a hurry about lifting restrictions just to keep up.

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Meanwhile, the number of newly infected people has plummeted with perhaps surprising speed, and more and more people are getting better every day. Each of the past two days has seen only a few dozen newly confirmed cases.

The rate of the spread of the disease, R0, has apparently declined to 0.7; that is, every infected person infects less than one other person. And so far, even though we have to wait at least another week, there are no stats showing a renewed rise in the infection rate after the lifting of restrictions and the general disinclination to follow the rules.

Despite the desire of politicians and journalists to simply explain the differences in the way the virus has struck different countries, most scientists believe the answer isn’t clear.

Israelis, some wearing masks, crowd Tel Aviv's Levinsky Market, May 1, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Does the virus slow down in all countries after two or three months? What about average age, climate, population density, genetics, the number of entry points and multigenerational family living? And what about the quarantining and social-distancing efforts, and their timing? Maybe things will become clearer with further research.

The disease’s decline in Israel has been particularly steep, but a similar process, albeit slower, can be seen in Italy and Spain, which were hit hard by the virus. In United States and Britain, which responded comparatively late, the disease is still raging.

On Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held a press conference that sometimes looked like a party celebrating the end of the coronavirus or an awards ceremony. Once again, Netanyahu highlighted the differences in the mortality rate between Israel and other countries; Israel comes out looking very good.

But a comparison with our neighbors might also be in order. In Jordan, Egypt, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip the coronavirus death rate has been minimal. That may be because testing has been low, and thus the true death rate is being missed. Or it might be because there are few airline connections with the outside world.

But another important component is apparently the low average age in Arab countries. The population in these states is even younger than in Israel, so they’re less vulnerable. And Israel’s population is much younger than those of most European countries.

First day of school after the easing of coronavirus restrictions in Jerusalem, Israel, on May 3, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

The sense of pressure among the Palestinians has also declined. At the beginning of the crisis, the Hamas leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, conveyed a slight sense of panic. Maybe he had seen too many press conferences by the team of Netanyahu and Moshe Bar Siman Tov, the director general of the Health Ministry.

But in recent days Hamas has signaled that the virus is under control in Gaza. With only 3 percent of the population 65 or over, the danger exists but there are fewer immediate reasons to worry.

This is also true in the view from the other side. It has now been more than two weeks since the army’s Division 98 ended its work in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak. Some 2,000 soldiers took part in the operation to assist the city. Since then, not one soldier has complained of coronavirus symptoms.

Meanwhile, hundreds of soldiers who were showing no symptoms were tested. Only one officer in the reserves, in his 50s, was found to have the virus. After senior officers who had been in contact with him were put in quarantine, the reserve officer underwent three more tests; it turned out he hadn’t been infected.

The conclusions: First, it seems that young people are indeed infected less, though the picture is far from clear. Second, Division 98 very strictly enforced social distancing and the wearing of masks. And that bore fruit.

Send in the troops

Netanyahu isn’t the only one feeling an atmosphere of an end of the crisis. In a letter to the National Security Council this week, Bar Siman Tov wrote that “Israel has dealt well with the coronavirus in terms of the extent of infection and mortality. That is the result of the public's impressive response to government directives and the policy that had been set, and of the devoted and expert treatment by the medical teams.”

So what’s missing, now that we’ve beaten the virus for the time being? It’s the element that Netanyahu and the Health Ministry have played down. Only after enormous pressure by Defense Minister Naftali Bennett was the number of daily tests increased, but it’s now declining as fewer people show up to be tested.

This is apparently the time to test more people who might have been exposed to the virus, as was done with the soldiers in Bnei Brak, so as to better understand the spread of the virus. Antibody tests, which Israel has bought from U.S. health care company Abbott Laboratories, are expected to be in the mix soon. In the army, which has taken an active part in the process, some officers say 30,000 tests a day are needed for the next year and a half to ensure that the virus doesn’t break out again.

The bottleneck in the testing process still needs to be unclogged. The commander of the Sayeret Matkal commando unit, like many of his senior officers and other brilliant minds in Military Intelligence, were enlisted in the effort a month ago. The army called the operation “the way of a test,” paraphrasing a similar term used in drawing up targets for attacks in Lebanon and Gaza. It turns out that Hezbollah and Hamas are sometimes easier nuts to crack than the health care bureaucracy.

The intervention by the elite unit helped streamline a few phases, but Israel still isn’t operating an efficient system to identify the chain of infection after a patient is identified. The goal – 36 hours between testing the infected person and finding the entire chain of people he or she was in contact with – seems a distant dream even though this is essential to stopping a new spread of the disease.

A senior official involved in the matter admits that “even after we brought in the Matkal, chaos continued to reign.” The only alternative remains the Shin Bet security service’s reliance on invasive geolocation technology. On Tuesday, the Knesset approved the use of this system for another three weeks.

Fewer people, greater focus

In the hope that the virus won’t spread again in the coming weeks, it seems Israel is still waiting for another milestone ahead of the fall and winter. On Monday, Netanyahu reiterated the assessments of the heads of the U.S. health services that there could be new outbreaks of the coronavirus and the seasonal flu at the end of the year.

Israel, which is hoping for a relatively quiet summer, will have to upgrade its health care system ahead of this possibility.

For example, the reserve of flu vaccines, currently at about 2.5 million for the season, will apparently have to be tripled. And the Health Ministry will have to begin dealing with the virus with limited help from the defense establishment. The joint army-Mossad command post at Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer, will close in the coming weeks. Military Intelligence will keep its people on alert to assist in the fight against the coronavirus, but in a limited fashion.

At the same time, the “machine” fighting the coronavirus will need an upgrade based on the improvements and lessons of the past two confusing and dramatic months. The health care system will have to rely on the equipment and means that have been purchased in abundance. But no less so, it will have to learn to focus and analyze information quickly, study the virus and prepare for the next wave, if it comes.

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