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Israel finally sees drop in COVID ‘cases’ – No thanks to Lockdown

For the first time in two months, Israel’s coronavirus numbers are creating a narrow space for cautious optimism. For the first time in a month or so, the number of seriously ill dipped below 1,000 after topping 1,200.

This week also saw slight but steady declines in daily new “cases”, and in the rate of positive tests. Meanwhile, the number of hospital staff who are ill and quarantined decreased to about 1,800 from above 5,000.

The key question for the weeks ahead concerns the easing of the lockdown measures – the cancellation of the restrictions on movement, the partial reopening of the schools and the selective opening of businesses. The two other times Israel moved out of a lockdown, the coronavirus numbers worsened badly and another lockdown was imposed.

The difference this time is the vaccine, probably Israel’s only way out of the crisis.

It’s already clear that it wasn’t the third lockdown that kept a lid on illness rates.

Drawing on data from cellphones, studies show that many people ignored the 1-kilometer (0.6-mile) lockdown restriction this time, though the police rarely bothered with enforcement except in the center of secular cities.

So the improvement is definitely linked to the vaccination campaign: 6.1 million doses, with about 40 percent of the public vaccinated and about a quarter of the public having received the second dose.

Meanwhile, 86 percent of the over-60s (the main risk group) and 80 percent of the over-50s have received at least one dose.

The impact is being felt accordingly, seen in numbers published Thursday by Prof. Eran Segal, a computational biologist at the Weizmann Institute of Science. Among the over-60s there have been decreases of 58 percent in new “cases”, 44 percent in hospitalizations, 38 percent in the number of ill and 40 percent in mortality.

This development occurred more slowly than predicted by the models, which were based on the mistaken premise that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine provides a high level of immunity after the first dose.

But now, with many older people having received the second dose, the trend is clearly visible. As long as no vaccine-immune variants turn up here, Israel is gradually acquiring excellent protection against serious COVID cases and better protection against infection in general.

Herd immunity in Israel probably isn’t attainable in the near future, at least not until Pfizer’s safety trials produce authorization to vaccinate children between 12 and 16.

But in the meantime, bubbles of relative safety appear to be developing among medical teams, in the military, at the intelligence agencies and soon at the military industries as well. At those places the vaccination rate stands at 80 to 90 percent, though that’s not herd immunity because people there also come in contact with the outside world.

When the Health Ministry warns against the uncontrolled opening of the economy, it’s worried about the following scenario: accelerated spread of the British variant in schools, with the unvaccinated below-16s getting infected; a spread to the 16-to-50 age group, where the vaccination rate is still lethargic; and serious illness among the relatively few older people who haven’t been vaccinated or whom the vaccine won’t protect (about 5 percent, according to Pfizer’s trials).

The concern is that, under this scenario, the combination of developments will again flood the hospitals.

On the other hand, consider what happened in the military over the past year. There, nearly 12,000 men and women were identified as ill, most of them between 18 and 21.

Under 10 of them became seriously ill, with not a single death. The risk level for serious illness among children and adolescents is low.

Then there’s the problem of encouraging people to be vaccinated, mainly the under-50s. The media is focusing on the infuriating vaccine refusers who are disseminating fake news to dissuade others from being inoculated. But the larger problem could be the population of indifferent people, or the Israelis who simply aren’t hurrying to the vaccination sites.

This phenomenon is blatant among young people who see no danger from the coronavirus, and in the Arab – especially the Bedouin – community, as well as among immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia.

The government is still contemplating the procedures for a “green passport”: who should be allowed into restaurants, gyms and performance venues when they finally reopen, and whether to allow in only those who have been vaccinated or have recovered from COVID-19.

Legal experts are rightly concerned about individual liberty when making health-related decisions, but it may not be possible to avoid measures that incentivize young people to be vaccinated. This dilemma will also preoccupy countries that have fewer vaccine doses at their disposal than Israel.

The 90 percent solution

The scale of success against the coronavirus will be the focus of our fourth election campaign in two years, which will end when we go to the polls on March 23. This election was forced on us by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempt to dodge his corruption trial.

Because of the slow fall of the illness rate, Netanyahu knows that on the eve of the election he won’t be able to celebrate the complete opening of the economy like in coronavirus-free New Zealand.

This time, more so than in the third election last March, the results will be influenced by the number of sick and quarantined who won’t be able to vote easily, and maybe also by the despairing who won’t bother to show up at the polling stations. We might see a correlation between a decline in turnout and the population segments that have been hit hard by the virus or are hesitating to be vaccinated (the Arab community and some ultra-Orthodox Jews).

It’s fascinating to follow Netanyahu’s public appearances and social media posts. The coronavirus is often mentioned, but almost always in the context of the vaccination project, for which the prime minister consistently takes the credit.

People who have spoken with him recently say he opens conversations by asking whether his interlocutors have been vaccinated, and expects to hear gratitude for getting the vaccine to Israel. He often visits vaccination centers, particularly in Arab locales, but tends to steer clear of the coronavirus wards.

That mission Netanyahu leaves to President Reuven Rivlin, who’s playing the role of wailing wall for the exhausted medical staffers. Otherwise, the prime minister talks about his battle against the judicial system, takes swipes at his political rivals and fans the eternal flame of ethnic tensions and squabbles in the media.

And soon begins the stage of disseminating embarrassing information about whoever might stand between Netanyahu and a right-wing/ultra-Orthodox coalition of at least 61 legislators that he hopes will cancel his trial. Rivlin himself got a reminder this week in the form of an Army Radio report on his participation a few months ago in the funeral of his brother-in-law, where the number in attendance topped the coronavirus restrictions. It’s a safe bet that the president won’t be the only one who encounters similar reports in the weeks ahead.

In the meantime, the initiative of Defense Minister Benny Gantz to close Army Radio has been frozen by intervention by the attorney general.

The very same Avichai Mendelblit who’s the target of the Bibi-ist propaganda machine every evening on that station has come to its rescue.

Gantz has only himself to blame. Last summer he received proposals to implement measures including the shuttering of Army Radio and the establishment of an inquiry commission into the affair of the purchase of extra submarines for Israel’s fleet. Gantz hesitated and the political opportunity was lost.

To his credit, and even though most of his party’s ministers have abandoned him, he continues to ask questions and present an alternative position in cabinet meetings, as something of a counterweight to the alliance of pessimists between Netanyahu and the health chiefs.

The government’s utter incompetence in handling the pandemic is thrown into even bolder relief by the resourcefulness at the hospitals and health maintenance organizations.

Their people are operating under extraordinarily difficult conditions caused by a long and systematic starvation at the hands of Netanyahu’s governments.

The latest fiasco was seen this week in the education system, when it emerged that the ministry was again unprepared with scenarios for getting the kids back to school. Only about 20 percent of Israel’s children went back to school Thursday.

That didn’t stop Education Minister Yoav Gallant from awarding himself a grade of 90 in an interview Thursday with the daily Yedioth Ahronoth. The last minister to cite 90 percent – in his case referring to qualifications to be foreign minister – was Yitzhak Moda’i, somewhere in the early ‘80s. Moda’i at least wasn’t responsible for a system that has been paralyzed for a year (albeit during a pandemic), in which children see no reason to get up in the morning and no longer believe their parents’ promises that things will soon be better.

Chen Arieli, deputy mayor of Tel Aviv, is a member of an independent forum calling itself the Team of Experts on the Crisis. She told Haaretz that there’s sound logic in the government’s intention to allow the opening of schools in cities, towns and neighborhoods according to an index that combines the incidence of disease with the vaccination rate of the local people. But that’s not enough, she says.

“The danger is that an endless loop will be created,” Arieli says. “A neighborhood that’s declared red won’t be able to emerge from that situation and return to school without help from the state. The correct method is to delegate more power to the local governments. The municipalities and local authorities know best what their situation is and who needs help.”

Arieli urges the creation of a round table of representatives from all the ministries that will deal point by point with the red cities’ needs.

In practice, that hasn’t happened for a year, in part because of the weakness of the Prime Minister’s Office. Interestingly, Arieli’s conclusions are similar to those of the Home Front Command. Long ago it identified the municipalities as effective centers of implementation – both for the pandemic and for a war – and ramped up its interaction with them.

Source: Amos Harel – HAARETZ