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Israel: Leading epidemiologist criticizes release of dire report on virus outbreak

A top epidemiologist has questioned a report by a military coronavirus taskforce that makes dire predictions about the pandemic’s trajectory in the country, amid reports that the Israel Defense Forces and the Health Ministry were both distancing themselves from its alarming forecasts.

The report by the Coronavirus National Information and Knowledge Center Saturday warned Israel could soon see thousands of new coronavirus infections a day and hundreds of deaths if immediate measures aren’t taken to contain the resurgent pandemic.

Dr. Hagai Levine, chairman of the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians and an epidemiologist at Hebrew University’s Braun School of Public Health and Community Medicine, censured the report as “unprofessional,” claiming the taskforce was made up chiefly of army officials and did not include epidemiologists.

“I know the professionals in the Coronavirus Knowledge Center,” he said. “These are intelligence people, not epidemiologists whose job this is.”

“It is unprofessional and unserious for epidemiological reports to come out of Military Intelligence without [anyone’s name] being signed on them, certainly no professional from the relevant area.”

According to the Walla news site, both the IDF and Health Ministry were denying their responsibility over the taskforce following the report’s release, with each claiming the other body oversees it.

He also complained that leading epidemiologists in the country were not being granted access to the data used in drawing up the report.

In remarks to Channel 13 news, Levine characterized the release of the report as “bizarre,” saying “Soldiers in the Intelligence Corps have access to health information that I as the chairman of the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians can’t access. Where is the transparency?”

But Dr. Gili Regev-Yochay, Director of Sheba Medical Center’s Infectious Disease Epidemiology Unit, expressed support for the report, telling Channel 12 it was “very accurate and very worrying.”

Regev-Yochay criticized the conduct of both the government and the public as cases rise, saying reopening the country so quickly “may have been a mistake.”

She added: “We can see today where things are headed three weeks from now… we’re not sufficiently prepared.”

And she repeated concerns by other health officials in recent days that while the first wave of the disease had clear hotspots, this was no longer the case with the new infections.

Meanwhile Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch said the government was already aware of many of the details contained in the report and was taking steps to deal with them.

In an interview with Channel 13 news, Kisch said the health system was now better equipped to deal with the pandemic than it was in March, when Israel saw its first major outbreak of COVID-19.

He also said he and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein want a thriving economy and don’t want to reimpose sweeping lockdown measures.

Kisch, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, also said the Shin Bet security agency’s controversial tracking of coronavirus carriers should be resumed in light of the rise in cases.

“The only automated tool that is immediately available to use for disrupting the infection chain is in the hands of the Shin Bet,” he wrote on Twitter.

“Immediate action is needed for expedited legislation in the Knesset, and we should allow the use of the tool in order to save lives and minimize the economic toll on Israel.”

The Shin Bet program, which raised privacy concerns for its use of sensitive data to track people infected with coronavirus and those they’ve been around, was halted earlier this month after ministers declined to advance legislation anchoring it in law, though they noted it could be resumed if the need arises.

The report by the National Information and Knowledge Center came as cases throughout the country continued to rise and warned of a potential need for a new national lockdown if immediate action is not taken to curb the reemerging pandemic.

The new wave of infections “is different in its characteristics from the first wave but no less severe,” the taskforce’s report said. “In recent weeks the number of new infections has risen steadily.”

On the positive side, the report noted that “the health system is better prepared with knowledge, treatment protocols and medicinal treatments” and that the average age of those infected was lower, which would contribute to lower mortality: “While in March-April some 13 percent of the sick were over 65, in May-June over-65s have gone down to 7.8%.” But on the negative side, “in the previous wave of sickness a significant number of the new illnesses derived from Israelis returning from abroad. This population was in many ways easier to identify and contain. In the current wave, the illness’s source is only from within the community and is thus harder to control and limit.”

The Center said that since national restrictions and lockdowns were eased, the Israeli public had developed an overly complacent attitude towards the disease, with many failing to wear masks in public as instructed and not maintaining safe distance from others.

It warned Israel could eventually be faced with the need for a new country-wide lockdown, but said this could potentially be avoided if certain steps were taken urgently in the coming days.

These included reevaluating certain recent eased restrictions (an apparent reference to mass celebrations and cultural events being reinstated with up to 250 people); increasing public awareness of the danger, as well as boosting enforcement of guidelines; and enacting efficient mechanisms to enforce quarantine and to disrupt chains of infection.

“We believe that without swift and decisive action to carry out these steps, whose cost to the economy is relatively limited, Israel could find itself in a month forced to make far more painful economic and social decisions.”

Diagnoses have risen steadily over recent weeks and in recent days have seen numbers hover between 200-300 a day, after being brought down to some 20 cases a day in May.

Despite the increase, the government on Friday gave the go-ahead to hold cultural events of up to 250 people with certain limitations. The green light applied to cinemas and theaters, and took immediate effect. In certain situations, with prior approval, events of up to 500 people will also be authorized, the government decided.

The government has repeatedly warned the public to continue to adhere to social distancing and hygiene orders amid concerns that a slacking of attitudes is allowing the spread of the virus to pick up pace anew. Leaders have indicated they are averse to a new national lockdown, but that they will seek local closures on any hotspots that emerge.

Source: TOI Staff