As COVID Infection Rate Soars, Israel Rethinks ‘Living With Coronavirus’

Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati
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COVID testing center in Tel Aviv, Israel, July 2021.
COVID testing center in Tel Aviv, Israel, July 2021.Credit: Moti Milrod
Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

The number of coronavirus infections over the last few days has put Israel at a crossroads that requires quick decisions. The public has largely been understanding of the government’s restrained policies during the fourth wave of the virus, and experts have praised the professionalism of the discussions and the decision-making process.

But due to the soaring incidence of the virus, the government’s stated policy of “living with the virus” is beginning to give way to familiar and harsher measures that have a major impact on daily life and the economy.

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On Tuesday, the coronavirus cabinet was meeting once again. Earlier, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett told the heads of the other parties in his governing coalition that additional restrictions must be imposed now, since in another 20 days or so, Israel is likely to have 800 seriously ill patients.

Israel had pinned its hope on vaccinations. And until now, they had proven themselves, resulting in a steep drop in coronavirus cases when lockdowns hadn’t worked.

But Bennett, like Health Ministry officials, understands that vaccines alone aren’t enough now, given the pace of vaccinations and the vaccine’s reduced effectiveness against the delta variant. Even though more than 60 percent of Israelis are vaccinated and a campaign to give senior citizens booster shots has begun, incidence of the virus is rising too rapidly to be ignored.

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“After three coronavirus cabinet discussions at which the Health Ministry’s recommendations were rejected or softened, it seems that cabinet members are starting to grasp the situation at the current meeting,” one ministry official said.

One step under discussion is tightening the “green pass” restrictions. If the proposed new rules are approved, people will have to show the pass – which proves that they have either been vaccinated, recovered from the virus or recently tested negative for it – even to enter events with fewer than 100 people.

Ben Gurion International Airport, Israel, July 2021.Credit: Emil Salman

In addition, numerous venues will no longer be exempt from the green pass requirement, including stores, supermarkets, swimming pools, museums, libraries, national parks and nature reserves. And children under 12 will no longer be exempt from showing a negative test.

The Health Ministry also wants to reinstate a mask mandate at outdoor events with more than a certain number of people. And the Knesset’s Labor, Welfare and Health Committee has already approved expanding the list of countries from which returning travelers must quarantine even if they have been vaccinated.

Health Ministry director general Nachman Ash has mentioned the possibility of another lockdown several times over the last month. But Health Ministry officials, like the Prime Minister’s Office, say a lockdown isn’t on the agenda right now.

Ash’s comments seem to be meant to lay the groundwork for the possibility of a lockdown during September’s Jewish holidays, people in the health system said. But no decision has yet been made, and Tuesday’s coronavirus cabinet meeting did not discuss that possibility.

Over the last 10 days, the number of new cases per day has jumped from 1,441 to more than 3,800, and the percentage of tests coming back positive stood at 3.78 percent as of Monday. There are currently 221 seriously ill patients, up from 151 just 10 days ago.

The health system coped with much higher numbers during previous waves of the virus, and the hospitals are far from collapse. But the data on how fast the virus is spreading is worrying.

“There’s a disconnect between the severity of the situation as reflected in the data and the way it’s seen by the public and in statements by politicians,” the expert panel advising the Health Ministry on the virus wrote earlier this week. The number of seriously ill patients “is doubling every 10 days, which means we’ll have 150 serious cases a day in three weeks – more than at the peak of the third wave.”

Israelis over 60 receiving the third vaccine at Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv on Sunday. Credit: Hadas Parush

Moreover, the panel said, even the harshest measures against the virus would take time to have an effect, and therefore, it would be a mistake to wait until the hospitals are already in serious distress. And regardless of what measures the government imposes, “it’s necessary to prepare immediately to significantly expand the hospitals’ ability to absorb significant numbers of seriously ill patients and people on ventilators as a critical part of the strategy,” the panel added.

There are many reasons for the strong desire to avoid a lockdown besides the fact that this is the government’s stated policy. First, there are serious doubts about whether an already exhausted, apathetic public would be capable of tolerating another lockdown. Second, there are serious questions about how effective lockdowns are.

“One of the important lessons of the third wave,” the advisory panel wrote, “is the understanding that a lockdown in and of itself (aside from all the harm it causes), even when it’s as long as a full month, might very well only halt the continued rise, but won’t have the power to significantly reduce the morbidity trend – unless there’s a more extreme lockdown than we had during the third wave, which is unreasonable.”

“When the lockdown was lifted during the third wave, morbidity stagnated only thanks to the effect of the vaccines,” it continued. “Otherwise, the data shows that morbidity would have continued to rise during the lockdown and after it.

“We see no reason to assume another lockdown would be any different than its predecessor in its severity, length and effectiveness. Therefore, faced with a more infectious variant than in the past, we mustn’t rely on it as a solution to a crisis situation in the hospitals.”

Booster shots have already been given to people with suppressed immune systems, and people aged 60 and older are getting them now. But the Health Ministry is also considering giving boosters to other people, including medical staff and people under 60 with preexisting conditions. Ministry officials discussed that issue Monday night, but reached no agreement.

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