Tightfisted testing policies and logistical delays may lead to a second wave of coronavirus infection in Israel sooner than most people expect, senior health officials told The Jerusalem Post.
Israelis need to be cautious, Cyrille Cohen, the head of the immunotherapy laboratory at Bar-Ilan University told the Post, as the number of children and educational staff who entered isolation reached into the dozens on Thursday.
“It is hard to say if we are seeing the beginning of a second wave” of the novel coronavirus, he said, “but we have to be cautious. The numbers are very low, but the numbers were very low when we started this pandemic.”
As of Thursday, at press time, there were 2,680 active cases of coronavirus, including 36 people on ventilators. Some 279 people have died.
Cohen warned that if Israel starts to see infection rates spike in “school after school, it will be a second wave. People can behave like everything is okay, but it does not mean that COVID-19 has disappeared. We should not be alarmed, but we should be alert.”
Cohen made his comments on the same day that a particularly high number of students and teachers across the country entered isolation after a number of educational faculty and staff were diagnosed with the novel coronavirus.
In the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) city of Bnei Brak an unidentified number of children and staff were asked to home-quarantine after a teacher’s aide at a special education school was diagnosed with SARS-CoV-2. In addition, two preschools were closed in Rishon Lezion after an assistant teacher who worked in them was found sick, putting more than 20 children into home-quarantine.
The N12 news site also reported about an additional facility in Ramle.
At first, some 50 children from a kindergarten in north Tel Aviv were asked to isolate after a staff member tested positive. However, several hours later, the Health Ministry reported that the staffer received a false positive and the children could resume their normal routines.
At the same time, 30 people – 27 residents and three employees – of a rehabilitation facility in Rehovot were isolated after a staff member was found to have the virus.
Last week, a teacher at a school in Rehovot who had been in contact with 52 students and many staff members tested positive for the virus. The school was shut down until May 27. On Thursday, the Health Ministry reported that it had done widespread testing at the institution. So far, eight people have tested positive – three teachers, two students and some of their family members.
Prof. Sigal Sadetsky, head of Public Health Services, said the Health Ministry was aware when it agreed to open schools fully on Sunday that the country could see an increase in infection, and that her team is “monitoring the state of infection among students and staff.”
First through third grade classes opened three weeks ago and preschools and kindergartens on May 10.
But former Health Ministry director-general Prof. Gabi Barbash told the Post that Israel “may have acted too hastily in opening the total system.” He said that while “we will know only in a few days – since the incubation period for the novel coronavirus is between five and 14 days – he believes the school system is likely going to have to return to a capsule-based system.
“It was essential to open schools,” Hadassah CEO Zeev Rotstein told the Post, explaining that children need a framework, it is the country’s duty to teach them and parents have to go back to work. But he said that if not monitored, schools are ripe for “super-spreaders,” individuals who spread the disease to many people at once.
“One teacher in front of a class that comes in contact with other adults and pupils, and if no specific care is being taken it may develop,” Rotstein explained. “The teacher will infect many kids who in turn will, of course, infect their own families, and so on and so forth.”
He equated the situation that the Health Ministry has created in schools to a similar one that erupted in senior living facilities during the height of the pandemic. Around one third of all coronavirus deaths in Israel were residents of these facilities, which could have been avoided, he said, but the super-spreaders were not tested before coming in contact with the older people they cared for.
“In nursing homes, it was not the tenants, but those coming in and out to treat and nourish them,” he said.
There are two ways to stop the spread of coronavirus and the first is screening. He recommended routinely testing teachers and school staff for coronavirus – even as often as once a week. The other, he said, is by maintaining good hygiene and requiring that students stay two meters apart.
The country has reduced the number of people tested per day by 40% to 67% from what it was testing only a few weeks ago. On May 18 it tested 4,347 people, 7,602 on the 19th and 6,938 on the 20th and 5,969 on the 21st. At its peak, Israel screened around 13,000 people a day.
Moreover, Health Ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman Tov touted a new serological testing program that was supposed to roll out at the latest this week in an interview with The New York Times. However, it was revealed to the Post earlier this week that those tests have not started.
Serological tests show that people have had an immune response to the infection.
Ran Sa’ar, CEO of Maccabi Healthcare Services, told the Post that the testing was delayed due to “logistics,” which the Post confirmed with Barbash. “There are several methodological issues that have not been solved,” he said. “There are lots of issues they are arguing about.” Cohen explained that without serological testing, Israel has no data on how much of the population is immune.
“If we will have more serological testing, we will be able to say, ‘I do see a rise in cases, but on the other hand, I know we have 20% or 30% of the population already immune to the virus so I am less alarmed because we are starting to see some herd immunity.’”
Rotstein said the Health Ministry has been “stingy” on screening since the start of the pandemic and that even after the entire country was forced into lockdown and more than one million people were driven to unemployment, the ministry has barely changed its testing methodology. Currently, the ministry will test only those people who have coronavirus symptoms or are already in quarantine, as opposed to running a random, widespread testing program to catch asymptomatic cases.
Research shows that around 80% of coronavirus patients have little or no symptoms of the disease and are therefore the most likely to spread it.
If the testing situation is not rectified, the impact on the economy could be even more severe than the first time around, Cohen said. Each week the education system remains closed costs the economy around $739 million, the Bank of Israel reported.
Neighborhoods in two cities – Rehovot and Ramle – have been designated “red zones” of high infection by the Health Ministry this week. It was first reported that Rosh Ha’ayin was also a red zone, but the ministry later retracted the statement, cautioning that “there have been cases of morbidity diagnosed in the city during the past week and therefore the rules of hygiene, including wearing masks and keeping distance, should be strictly adhered to. Anyone who is not feeling well should consult a doctor at his or her health fund.”
In Rehovot, there has been a 3.1% spike in infection in the last three days, the Health Ministry reported Thursday. There has been a 5.9% spike in Ramle and a 3.1% spike in Rishon Lezion. Haifa, too, saw an increase in cases – 1.2%. In contrast, cities that formerly had the highest infection rates – Jerusalem and Bnei Brak – had a 0.2% and 0.1% increase in infection over the last three days.
Despite these spikes, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein approved gatherings of up to 50 people in indoor settings on Thursday. Already, 50 people were permitted to gather in open spaces.
Cohen said this is the “instant generation” and people want to be done with COVID-19 as quickly as it started. But he said that with pandemics “it can take weeks, months and even years.
“I would not be surprised if next year we are still talking about COVID-19,” he said. “This is not going to disappear.”
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