Israel's COVID Infections Keep Slowing, but Experts Fear a Holiday Reversal

Health professionals are concerned that Israel's efforts to curb the COVID spread could be undermined by a combination of the new school year and large family gatherings over the Jewish High Holy Days

Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati
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Health Ministry Director-General Nachman Ash at a press briefing last week, as a graph shows a rise in new COVID infections in Israel.
Health Ministry Director-General Nachman Ash at a press briefing last week, as a graph shows a rise in new COVID infections in Israel.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

The wave of coronavirus infections is showing signs of slowing down, but the mass gatherings expected during Rosh Hashanah could reverse that trend, say experts.

“We are definitely seeing the effects of the booster shot, and the question is which trend will be stronger, the booster or the spread of the virus,” said Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, the head of public health services at the Health Ministry, to Haaretz. “We’re succeeding in slowly but consistently reducing the number of Israelis who are refusing to get vaccinated, which currently stands at 940,000. I don’t think all these people are anti-vaxxers; we simply have to reach them. Therefore, opening vaccination stations at night and the improved accessibility to the vaccine is an important step.”

Some 2.57 million Israelis have received the booster shot since it became available in early August, initially to those over 60 and gradually to anyone aged 12 and up.

On Sunday, Israel's Health Ministry logged 4,975 new cases of the coronavirus. Out of the 91,346 active patients, there are currently 679 serious cases, with 200 people in critical condition and 143 on ventilators.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, 7,154 people have died from the virus in Israel.

The COVID ward at Beilinson Hospital in Tel Aviv, on Wednesday.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

A report by a panel of Hebrew University experts advising decision makers forecasts a continued drop in the number of severely ill people and a continued drop in the number of people infected with the virus who are 40 or older. “We maintain our assessment that the wave can be blocked,” write these experts, pointing to a continued drop in the number of new seriously ill patients and in the number of hospitalized ones.

The panel, which includes Profs. Yinon Ashkenazy, Doron Gazit, Ronit Calderon- Margalit, Nadav Katz and Ran Nir-Paz from Hadassah Hospital, points to an increase in the number of confirmed cases among those under 18 year, which they believe stems from an increase in the number of tests done in this age group. Of the 130,000-140,000 tests administered daily, between 55,000-60,000 are conducted on schoolchildren. The rate of positive tests over the last two days has been 12 percent, a sharp climb from 4.9 percent two weeks ago.

Children comprise a large proportion of the confirmed cases in recent weeks. This is explained by the fact that children under 12 are not vaccinated, as well as by the fact that the number of tests has increased. This includes rapid tests done on a daily basis by people wishing to obtain an all-clear “green passport,” as well as antigen tests that one million pupils were required to take at the start of the school year. These tests uncover covert infections among children, as well as among unprotected adults who are close to them.

The Hebrew University experts predict that the number of infections in people over 60 will continue to decline, with the number of seriously ill hospitalized patients dropping to under 500 within a week or two, easing the load on hospitals.

“Our assessment continues to be that this wave has been halted due to the combination of booster shots and the implementation of light restrictions. One should note that defying the restrictions on mass gatherings could lead to a renewed outbreak, given the current large number of infected people. Therefore, it’s important to abide by the current restrictions,” say the experts in their summary.

Other experts confer with the view that the large number of confirmed cases, coupled with a consistent drop in the number of seriously ill patients, suggests the effectiveness of the third vaccine. “There is a drop in the number of confirmed cases in people over 60 along with a significant rise in confirmed cases among children. The opening of schools and the holidays could change the situation, but this could be balanced by a growing number of people getting the vaccine,” writes Weizmann Institute Prof. Eran Segal on Twitter.

The Health Ministry is putting its efforts into reaching the close to one million Israelis, who have not yet to receive any vaccine.

However, professionals are concerned that efforts to block the fourth wave could be undermined by the start of the school year and a month of holidays with numerous family gatherings.

There is also concern about tens of thousands of Israelis who plan to fly to Uman in the Ukraine for Rosh Hashanah on an annual pilgrimage to the grave of Rebbe Nachman. Israel’s coronavirus czar, Prof. Salman Zarka, is expected to fly to Ukraine over the holiday in order to supervise the implementation of the plan to manage the flights to Uman. The Health Ministry ascribes much importance to sticking to the plan out of concern that tens of thousands of Israelis returning from Ukraine will bring new variants of the virus into the country with them.

As part of the plan, travelers to Uman will need to present a negative test result for corona taken 72 hours before their flight as well as a negative test result taken within 72 hours of returning to Israel. Furthermore, people returning from Uman will have to fully isolate for 14 days, eligible for shortening to one week subject to two negative COVID tests.

The Knesset has approved the expansion of electronic monitoring of people who need to quarantine themselves. This was an amendment to the existing law, which up to now applied only to people returning from overseas. It will now apply to anyone requiring isolation. The decision relates to electronic measures, but the government intends to avoid using monitoring bracelets, opting instead for designated surveillance applications on mobile phones which were used in earlier waves of the pandemic.

According to the law, children under 14 will not be subject to electronic surveillance. Furthermore, anyone refusing to use these measures, or who for technical reasons is unable to use them, will be subjected to increased monitoring by the police, who will be permitted to send inspectors and policemen to people’s homes to ensure that they are abiding by quarantine restrictions.

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