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Panic over another COVID wave in Israel is needless – and could be damaging

The COVID panic being spread by the fearmongers in the media and the Health Ministry seems exaggerated at the moment. The Indian ‘Delta’ variant is more contagious than the previous variants and has spread more quickly in other countries, and now apparently in Israel as well. But the fear-mongering, that seems at least in part fed by a powerful longing for some television limelight, ignores two dramatic changes in the situation since the third wave of the coronavirus subsided in March. First, most of Israel’s population is vaccinated against the virus (some 60 percent with one dose of the Pfizer vaccine and more than 55 percent with two doses). And second, and even more important, almost all the at-risk population is fairly well protected (some 90 percent of people age 50 and above are vaccinated).

According to recent studies in Britain published at the end of the week, the ‘Delta’ variant is more contagious (the R factor – the number of people to whom one infected person passes the disease on average – is apparently 5, which is 40 percent higher than the earlier strains).

But so far no proof has been found that the vaccines are significantly less effective against it, certainly not the Pfizer vaccine, which is in use in Israel.

In recent months, many scientists have said that Israel has reached herd immunity from the known variants, which reduced the number of new confirmed “cases” to a few dozen a day, the number of hospitalized patients to about 50 and the number of deaths to only a few a week.

The ‘Delta’ variant somewhat shuffles the deck. Because of the localized outbreaks in schools, in Binyamina, Modi’in and Kochav Yair, the daily number of cases crossed the 200 threshold on Thursday. Herd immunity, if it was attained in the past, is not enough in the face of the increased transmissibility of the new variant.

In contrast, there has been almost no change in the number of hospitalized or severely ill patients.

True, we all know now that we have to wait at least two weeks after the appearance of the first cases to see the consequences, but the data from Britain – where the delta strain has been going strong for a month – show that there has been no significant spike in the number of hospitalized or seriously ill patients. There is no evidence that the new strain is more deadly and since most cases of the virus involve unvaccinated children and teens, the number of seriously ill patients is still small.

We must remember that Israel never tried to reach the goal, controversial from the beginning of “zero COVID,” that is, completely halting the spread of the virus.

All the steps taken so far have been aimed at preventing hospitals from collapsing under the load of more than 1,000 coronavirus patients, which would lead to less­­-than-optimal care.

At the height of the waves a certain decline in quality of care for coronavirus patients was seen, along with a clear compromise in the quality of care given to patients with other afflictions, who did not receive proper treatment and follow-up.

We are very far from that situation now, even if there is a danger that a small percentage of vaccinated older adults might still become seriously ill.

The ‘Delta’ strain came to Israel due to the irksome indifference of the authorities, who did not properly supervise the entry to Israel via Ben-Gurion International Airport, nor did they monitor the rules of isolation for people arriving from “red” countries.

This began at the end of the Netanyahu government, which was busy celebrating the victory over the coronavirus and political survival, and persisted in the early days of the Bennett-Lapid government, which woke up late.

Now it seems that the government has come to its senses. The decision to institute close supervision at the airport and the prime minister’s call on Israelis to forego unnecessary trips abroad sounds logical and obvious under the new circumstances. So does the recommendation to avoid large gatherings in closed spaces at events where most people are not vaccinated.

But the panic has already begun to creep in. First, the Health Ministry announced Friday, with a warning of only a few hours, a reinstitution of the mask mandate in closed spaces, beginning at 12 noon. On Saturday, the Health Ministry director-general, Prof. Chezy Levy, said in an interview with the Kan public broadcaster that he believed people would soon be required once again to wear masks in open spaces. One TV station went even further – returning to the ritual of mask wearing in the studio on Thursday evening.

The request to be careful in closed spaces is understandable. The virus spreads easily in closed, unventilated spaces.

But the requirement to wear a mask in open spaces was one of the most foolish requirements imposed during the pandemic.

No scientific research has found a basis for the usefulness of this practice. It only frustrated people and led to constant friction with police and inspectors, to arbitrary fines and to unnecessary harassing of people walking by themselves.

It sometimes seemed that the police were using the mask regulation as a power play against the public.

As far as this is concerned, this directive resembled other foolish rules from the beginning of the crisis, first and foremost the ban on individual sports activities.

Levy and other senior health care officials insisted obstinately and unnecessarily on the wearing of masks outdoors for months.

The purpose, they said, was to warn the public because we were all soldiers in basic training. Now that such a large part of the population at risk has been vaccinated, this is a show of asininity.

The coronavirus is not behind us, as the spread of the new delta strain shows. The situation elsewhere in the world is much worse: In poor countries there are not enough vaccinations and in rich countries like the United States there are many people who are refusing the jab for ideological reasons, and thus lose the chance of reaching herd immunity. It seems that in contrast to the hope of many, this year too, harsh restrictions will be placed on tourism abroad and in Israel, because of the pandemic.

And yet, people here are exhausted after more than a year of severe illness, restrictions on freedom of movement, difficulty making a living and anxiety. This is precisely the place for the new prime minister to act with wisdom and restraint, without being dragged into panic. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett sees a political opportunity for himself with the return of the coronavirus to our lives. When the pandemic arrived in Israel in February, Bennett was defense minister and was one of the first to recognize the seriousness of the danger and act accordingly. After that, when Netanyahu threw him out of the government, Bennett branded himself as caring for people whose livelihoods were compromised by the crisis. He didn’t make do with that, and even published a ridiculous and arrogant book which claimed to explain how to beat the pandemic.

The pandemic is still here – and Bennett believes that this is the time for him to show leadership, at the expense of his senior coalition partners Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar.

But the frenetic prime minister needs to be careful not to succumb to bad advice and march Israel backward into the bunker mentality of the start of the pandemic.

He needs to recognize that a few basic things have changed since then, and perhaps even improved.

In light of the rise in infections, the necessary step in the opinion of a good many experts is to encourage people to get teens ages 12 through 15 vaccinated [our note: disputed], a move that has been slow so far due to legitimate concerns of their parents and the decline in the sense of danger and urgency. This step is much more important that a return to the outdoor patrols of the mask police, which could be followed by other extreme steps like closing parts of the economy.

Source: Amos Harel – HAARETZ