steampunk heart
Israel

Israel’s COVID Dashboard Crashes. We’ve Entered a New Phase

This week I finally kicked the dashboard habit. Under the heavy burden of COVID tests and confirmed cases, the Health Ministry’s computerized system collapsed and ceased to provide detailed updates on the country’s pandemic statistics two or three times a day. Like many other Israelis, I had become accustomed to checking the daily trends: how many seriously ill, how many people vaccinated, where is the pandemic headed?

Rehab came just in time. With tens of thousands of confirmed new cases every day, it’s clear that the trends are moving in only one direction: up. But after the testing system was changed and shifted to home testing, it’s almost impossible to draw comparisons with the previous weeks.

Moreover,

… according to the experts the true number of those becoming infected is at least three times as high as the official number (which was barely published this week, anyway). And in the ongoing Omicron wave, the number of confirmed cases is all but meaningless.

The only critical data point is the number of patients treated in the hospitals, most of whom are in serious condition.

As a result of the surge in infections, there are virtually no Israelis without multiple confirmed cases in their environment. It’s the same in most other countries, too. However, the third vaccine shot (the fourth for high-risk groups and medical staff in Israel) has completely changed the rules of the game.

Omicron is not necessarily less severe than its predecessors, but its impact on those who are vaccinated is milder.

The bottom line is that the chances of infection are far higher with Omicron, but for most of the vaccinated, the danger of serious illness is low.

The danger is at the national level – that the number of seriously ill will reach 1,000 or 1,200 and bring about an acute deterioration in the quality of medical care.

Prof. Eran Segal, from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, who is advising the government on the pandemic, estimates that the bar won’t be broken.

The growing caseload in hospitals and the community clinics has two additional causes: the fact that this is flu season, and the sharp rise in the number of medical workers who are in quarantine after coming into contact with COVID carriers.

No unequivocal precedents can be gleaned from the situation in other countries. The British government is rushing to celebrate the demise of Omicron, even though the number of infections is still high. However, the hospitalizations there were not even half what they were at the height of the wave a year ago. In the United States, where fewer people are vaccinated, the number of serious cases has reached new records, and now a possible slowdown is looming.

Without saying so officially, most governments are reaching the conclusion that at the current rate they lack adequate means to halt the spread of the variant.

In these hard times, the Israel government has completely revamped its policy in two areas: tests and isolation.

First, the more reliable PCR test was abolished for most people; and then the length of the isolation for the infected and for the unvaccinated who came into contact with them was reduced to just five days. At the same time, police enforcement of the regulations effectively faded away. Responsibility passed totally into the hands of the citizenry.

The abridgment of the isolation period drew sharp criticism in the media. The purists are not pleased and are vehemently demanding clarifications from the government. The sharp Twitter persona who hides under the name “Yagon Tugati” apparently hit the nail on the head for many when he wrote this week that the journalists who disagree with the policy are invited to remain in isolation for more than five days if they don’t agree with the new guideline.

The frequent revisions in the regulations, which branch out into numberless sub-scenarios, are truly bewildering and create the atmosphere of a circus.

This is especially blatant in the education system, where there’s an endless train of those going into quarantine and those returning, there is hardly any remote learning and the despair of the parents is only rising.

The Green Pass has become meaningless, certainly in schools. The vaccinated children are protected against serious illness, not against infection.

There is no longer any point to discriminating between vaccinated and unvaccinated students regarding quarantine rules, when both groups are being infected at almost the same rate. It’s a concept that’s irrelevant in the current wave.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is, along with Prof. Segal, calculating that the wave’s peak is close at hand and that the hospitals will not buckle under the pressure.

Data about those over 60 and about the number of infected among hospital staff are already heralding the start of a downturn.

The government will soon start to distribute millions of free tests to everyone.

The intention is to focus the effort on the schools, in a program to be called “Testing and Learning.”

Each family will be asked to test their children every two days before they leave for school. Those who test positive, and of course the symptomatically ill, will stay home. Children who come into contact with someone who is infected will be exempt from quarantine. The hope is that this policy will restore some sort of order to the education system, parallel to a decline in infections.

If the Omicron variant does fade next month, it’s likely that the pandemic will soon move to a different stage, at least in terms of the approach of the governments and populations in most countries in the West.

The inequality in the distribution of the vaccines means that developing nations will require another year to reach a stage in which most of the population is vaccinated.

There is no way to know for certain what will happen. But if a more dangerous, vaccine-bypassing strain doesn’t appear, huge pressure is likely to be brought on Western governments to revise their policy and go back to normal as fast as possible, with less demanding regulations for testing and quarantine, and with protective measures focusing on the at-risk population groups.

That routine will persist despite the possible danger of the arrival of a new infectious variant from less vaccinated countries.

That, too, is a problematic situation. But if it comes to pass, maybe we will finally be able to say goodbye to all that: to nonstop radio broadcasts; to self-important, all-knowing commentators; to overly panicky reporters; to scientists who appointed themselves rigorous commissars of the discourse on TV and online; to the partners of senior officials, who rail on the web against all their rivals, real and imaginary; to lawyers who have been entrenched their homes for two years with their offspring and issue guidelines to the public from there.

On the list of discomforting things that the pandemic brought, the dangerous and irresponsible madness of the vaccine opponents easily takes first place.

And still, at some point we will have to ask how it came about that such large swaths of the media and of opinion molders became licensed panic-mongers who only exacerbated the public’s anxieties in a time of crisis.

Source: Amos Harel – HAARETZ