The recent coronavirus outbreaks at educational institutions around Israel, which came after COVID-19 was on the wane and life returned to normal, can provide cause for concern and even overreaction.
On the surface, the situation includes all the necessary ingredients for a wave of social panic: the highly contagious delta variant first found in India, an uptick in registered new cases, and doubts over the effectiveness of the vaccine in light of the new variant.
There are indeed initial signs of the situation deteriorating, and they require monitoring and preventative measures at this stage. However, with over 60 percent of Israel’s population vaccinated (including over 90 percent of the senior citizens), the arrival of the delta variant in Israel marks a different ball game in comparison to the pre-vaccine period at the beginning of the pandemic.
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While Prime Minister Naftali Bennett knows this, he is also aware of the public relations dilemma that his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, faced in similar situations. On the one hand, an over reassuring message may lead to complacency among the public. On the other, issuing radical measures wouldn’t leave room for a more calibrated response and will undermine the public's trust.
This dilemma was reflected in Bennett's choice of words and the new measures he announced. He made it clear that Israel addresses the situation as a “new outbreak,” while some new cases couldn't be traced back to the original contact. He urged ramping up the pace of vaccinating 12- to 15-year-olds and noted that “the delta variant is spreading in many countries around the world at an infection rate that is much higher than what we have known.”
However, Bennett avoided histrionics. Instead of demanding the Israeli public not to travel abroad, he requested to avoid unnecessary travel. “At this stage, we are not changing policy, and the only reason is that we want to study the information before we make various decisions,” he said.
The bottom line is that the government's new steps are tailored to the circumstances and to the prevailing professional opinion. Israel is focussing its efforts on two main goals: First, to stop new mutations from entering Israel through infected returnees at Ben-Gurion Airport by amplifying COVID-19 testing and enforcing mask-wearing at the terminal. Second, to increase the number of vaccinated people among the public, particularly among young people.
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At this stage, health system professionals say there is no reason to reimpose limitations on public gatherings or restricting admission to public places to those who have been vaccinated.
“What will determine the next steps is the scope of the outbreaks in the coming days, certainly if we'll see a steady increase in hospitalizations,” said one senior health official who is a member of a Health Ministry advisory panel. “If it just involves cases of infection in the community, I think at the moment we can make do with wearing masks at hospitals, nursing homes, on airplane flights, at Ben-Gurion Airport, on public transportation and among sensitive populations.”
He was not alone in that regard. At the beginning of the week, the official panel dealing with epidemics in Israel considered whether to reinstate the requirement of wearing masks indoors. Most of the members recommended that masks should be worn in medical institutions, geriatric and custodial nursing care facilities, as well as airports, airplanes and border crossings. The director-general of the Health Ministry, Chezy Levy, since announced that masks will be made compulsory at airports, border crossings, and medical facilities.
For his part, Itamar Grotto, the former Health Ministry deputy director general, said that at this stage, we can make do with limited and calibrated steps similar to how “ordinary diseases are dealt with,” as he put it.
On the other hand, due to the nature of a pandemic, such moderate recommendations can quickly become irrelevant. A senior Health Ministry professional noted the majority of newly infected are traced back to arrivals from abroad. However, the fact that some new cases has no apparent connection to travel abroad means that the delta variant has already begun to spread around Israel.