September began with fears that the new school year and large holiday gatherings would exacerbate coronavirus infection and illness rates, but key metrics continue to suggest that Israel's latest coronavirus outbreak is receding, with experts saying they expect the number of severe cases to be halved by the end of the month.
The number of COVID-19 patients in severe condition fell Tuesday to 489, from more than 700 less than two weeks ago. It was the first time there were fewer than 500 severe cases since mid-August. Other COVID-19 statistics have also showed improvement. On Monday 3,186 people tested positive for the coronavirus. The reproduction number, representing the average number of people that each infected person will in turn infect with the virus, fell to 0.74. Eleven people died of COVID-19 on Monday, and the death toll has risen to 7,853.
Because severe illness lags infections by 10 days to two weeks, the decline in the infection rate is expected to be reflected in a decline in the number of severely ill patients later this month.
According to a forecast by a team of experts from the Weizmann Institute of Science headed by Prof. Eran Segal, if this trend continues the number of severely ill patients will fall to between 250 and 350 by the end of October. Segal said the current figures match the report the Weizmann experts issued August 22, which forecast the decrease in the number of cases and the number of severely ill patients.
Several factors contributed to this decline, Segal said. During the present wave of the virus, some 3.6 million people received a third dose of the vaccine, and 660,000 received their first dose. Additionally, 400,000 people have recovered from COVID-19, and Segal estimates that the real figure is actually twice that number.
Consequently, about 5 million Israelis have up-to-date and effective immune protection from the virus. Segal said this protection helped reduce the infection rate by 50 percent, adding that every million people who receive the booster shot (the third dose) will reduce it by another 10 percent.
His forecast for the rest of October is conditioned on about 25,000 people per day getting the booster and 4.25 million people in total being vaccinated.
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A team of experts from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem also predict a continued drop in the number of severely ill patients as a result of the booster shots and the Green Pass system. Their report, from the beginning of this week, said that the continued hospitalizations of younger, unvaccinated people “and a rise in the survivability of patients in serious condition led to a delay of about two weeks” in the drop in severe cases.
They expect this decrease to continue and even accelerate during the first three weeks of October, since seriously ill patients are now recovering faster than new ones are arriving. On Monday, for instance, 38 new patients were hospitalized while 44 were released.
The death rate has stabilized at about 20 percent of severely ill patients, which is lower than before, the report added.
The Gertner Institute, which also advises the Health Ministry, predicted that the number of severely ill patients would fall to around 460 by the end of the week.
Prof. Ran Balicer, who heads the panel of experts advising the ministry, said this decline had been expected given the booster shots and other steps to curb the spread of the virus. But the big questions were whether the decline would be as big as the experts hoped and how the reopening of the school year after September’s Jewish holidays would affect it.
Even though the overall number of seriously ill patients has fallen, 237 hospitalized patients are in critical condition, including 197 who are on ventilators. Last week, the number of patients on ECMO machines, which take over the lungs to add oxygen to blood, rose to 54, and the hospitals feared running out of available machines, given that some must be kept in reserve in case a machine in use breaks down. But as of Tuesday, that number had fallen to 51.
Balicer said that even though the data allowed the experts to scrap a previous recommendation to impose new restrictions, caution was still warranted.
“With regard to critically ill patients, we’ve seen a steady rise over several weeks due to the severity and duration of the disease among young unvaccinated patients, who have deteriorated in growing numbers,” he said. And with regard to ECMO machines, “we’re still at the limit of our capacity, and it will take several more days at least until we see a significant easing.”
“Therefore, until additional machines are freed up, it’s important to continue to prevent every possible seriously ill patient, to ensure that they can get the best treatment,” he added. “Hence the need for caution.”
Moreover, Balicer said, most schools only reopened Sunday, so what impact this will have remains to be seen – especially since, starting in mid-October, the government has decided to stop quarantining students exposed to verified patients and instead require them to take a rapid antigen test every day.