Cabinet Set to Convene as Officials Concerned Purim Threatens Israel's COVID Progress

Health Ministry officials fear that vaccination euphoria, a reduced perception of risk and COVID fatigue might lead to mass gatherings during the holiday

Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati
Israelis queue to buy costumes ahead of the Jewish holiday of Purim in Dizengoff Center in Tel Aviv, yesterday.
Israelis queue to buy costumes ahead of the Jewish holiday of Purim in Dizengoff Center in Tel Aviv, yesterday.Credit: Hadas Parush
Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

The Israeli government's COVID cabinet will be meeting on Tuesday to discuss proposed restrictions over the Purim holiday, which beings on Thursday.

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The meeting was initially planned for Monday.

It was just after last year’s Purim parties, parades and megillah readings that Israel closed the economy and the school system to try to halt the spread of the coronavirus. The country has fundamentally changed after the devastation of the past year, but as the juncture of Purim approaches again, the prevailing sense of cautious optimism is also marked by risk.

Israelis shop for costumes for Purim in Jerusalem, yesterday.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

If there is any fundamental lesson to be learned from this past year, it’s that even with an impressive learning curve, experience, accumulated knowledge and initiative, the element of uncertainty accompanies this crisis every step of the way.

From that perspective, Purim this year is very much like those days of innocence at the start of the crisis last Purim. This week has started to bring smiles and sighs of relief to many children and parents (not all of them, though, not yet), after weeks and months of disconnect and burnout. The reopening of parts of the school system together with the Purim preparations, costumes and all that goes with it are a dose of sanity for people who needed it badly, even with the restrictions that still remain in place.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin celebrates Purim with Israeli children last year.Credit: Haim Tzach / GPO

Yet with the exit from its third lockdown, Israel is taking a chance that’s hard to calculate or estimate. Within a few weeks, this week’s reopenings may prove to be the seeds of the next outbreak and spike in infections, yet it could just as easily turn out to have been the right move, or even one that’s too conservative. The game-changer is, of course, the vaccination campaign, the impact of which is being increasingly felt on the morbidity map and the judgment of the decision-makers. The “green passport” program is also utilizing the exit to encourage the public to get vaccinated.

Israel is going into this stage of the exit with a marked improvement in the infection statistics. The infection coefficient (the R number) is around 0.8, and the number of new daily cases is around 3,500, with 6.3 percent of coronavirus tests coming back positive. Some 75 percent of the new cases are people under 40. The number of seriously ill COVID patients in hospitals has dropped from 1,022 to 837.

A class held outdoors and in capsules in the coastal city of Netanya, this week.Credit: Hadas Parush

Meanwhile, the vaccination campaign is starting to bear fruit. Some 4.4 million Israelis have been vaccinated to date; 3 million are double-vaccinated. The pace of vaccination is 160,000 people daily. Over the past two weeks there have been significant findings demonstrating the effectiveness of the vaccine, showing that it greatly reduces the likelihood of symptomatic illness, serious illness, death and even the passing of the infection to others. Ninety-two percent of those aged 60 and above are either vaccinated or have recovered from COVID-19, as have 89 percent of those 50 and above. Far fewer people in this age group are getting sick; it seems that the vaccine is fulfilling its promise.

Nevertheless, the country is far from eradicating the virus. The biggest group of unvaccinated residents – children under 16 – are now going back to school. And this time the more aggressive British variant of the virus is out there, now responsible for 90 percent of new cases, as is the South African variant. The reopening of schools is being limited to locales with low infection rates, with studies to take place in capsules and meant to be accompanied by mass testing to identify outbreaks and stop them quickly. But no one knows if these steps will allow for a reasonable learning routine, and the gathering of children, even with precautions, is making Health Ministry professionals very nervous.

Israelis queue to show their 'green pass' in order to enter a shopping mall in Jerusalem, yesterday. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Purim is the next big challenge on the horizon. The government guidelines ban parties, parades or any mass events. Synagogues may accommodate worshipers with green passports at up to 50 percent of their capacity, or maintain the former restriction of 10 people inside and 20 outside. These guidelines, however, do not satisfy Health Minister Yuli Edelstein and other ministry officials, and they may demand a night lockdown over the days of the holiday (this Thursday night through Sunday).

The experience of last year – when efforts to limit the number of event participants first began – indicate that the health officials’ fears are justified. Added to that is the reduced perception of risk, whether because of the vaccines (even among those who’ve had only one dose) and the general “pandemic fatigue” that everyone is feeling.

This week the incentive plan in the form of the green passport will be put to the test, as cultural events, sporting events, gyms, pools and malls are being opened to those who’ve been fully vaccinated or who have recovered from COVID-19. The success of the initiative will be measured in two ways: its logistics and application in the field, and its influence on vaccination rates. It is hoped that this significant incentive, combined with information campaigns and positive reports about the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine, will provide the push that the inoculation campaign needs.

Taking everything into account, we get a picture of an interim situation. The direction is positive, but at this juncture any of the variables could set the country back. Still, the hope that by Purim 2022, the word “mask” will regain its traditional meaning, is a real possibility.

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