The leader of the fight against the coronavirus urged decision-makers Monday to not rush the opening of schools, warning that pupils could bring the virus home with them and infect the much more vulnerable elderly population.
Speaking at the Knesset’s Labor and Welfare Committee, Ronni Gamzu also said that Israel would soon implement guidelines mandating a briefer quarantine period, as the nation seeks to emerge from a nationwide lockdown that has managed to drastically cut infection rates but also paralyze parts of the economy.
“The infection rate among young kids is very high. A dam could not hold it back,” Gamzu said, adding that it was unrealistic to expect children to limit contact with older family members.
Instead, he said, decision-makers should wait until infection rates are much lower before sending kids back to school.
“We must wait with the opening of the education system — elementary and high schools,” he pleaded, “and do so carefully because in the end those kids and teenagers have interactions with adults and the elderly.”
According to the staged plan presented by the Health Ministry, schools will gradually allow students to return depending on the meeting of epidemiological benchmarks. Preschools and kindergartens opened on Sunday, and grades 1-4 are set to begin once Israel manages to keep below 1,000 infections a day.
While the plan predicts two weeks between stages, Israel has seen infection rates drop precipitously, leading to calls for a swifter reopening of schools, businesses and public activity after a month of restrictions that managed to slow the spread of the virus.
A similar scenario following the first lockdown caused health officials to abandon their staged plan and open nearly all schools at once in early May. The rushed opening has been blamed for playing a part in runaway infection rates that preceded the second lockdown, in place since mid-September.
Education Ministry Director-General Amit Edri said at a meeting of the Coronavirus Committee that his ministry was prepared for any plan presented by the Health Ministry regarding the reopening of schools.
That came after the Health Ministry on Sunday sent the Education Ministry its guidelines for reopening schools, sparking concern that the new plan is almost identical to the widely panned first gambit, Channel 12 news reported.
The Health Ministry was aiming to allow grade schools to resume soon, on condition that the number of new virus cases diagnosed daily falls below 1,000, the Kan public broadcaster reported. Health Ministry figures released Sunday and Monday showed that goal being met. However, numbers tend to be lower over the weekend as testing rates also go down.
Gamzu said that thanks to capacity for mass testing and contact tracing, officials would soon shorten the mandated quarantine time from 14 days to 12, by performing a COVID-19 test after 10 days.
“Every day of quarantine has consequences for the economy. Health comes first but if we can save quarantine days, we can benefit the economy,” said Committee chairman Haim Katz (Likud).
Gamzu also praised Israel’s health system in light of the country’s low mortality rate — 2,209 deaths out of 303,846 cases as of Monday afternoon, a mortality rate of 0.7 percent.
“Israel’s health system is strong and resilient and is based on strength, dedication and determined staff members. The mortality rate here is among the lowest in the world,” he said. “We will never become Italy.”