Appointments for teens to get inoculated soar

As virus infection rate rises once more, health experts say: Don’t panic

40% of cases in past month said to come from abroad, amid Delta variant fears; Binyamina designated ‘yellow’ town; but professionals say Israel likely protected from serious wave

Travelers line up for COVID-19 testing at the Ben Gurion International Airport, on June 20, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/FLASH90)
Travelers line up for COVID-19 testing at the Ben Gurion International Airport, on June 20, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/FLASH90)

Israel’s virus transmission rate has risen to 1.77 amid several renewed local outbreaks of the coronavirus, according to Health Ministry data Monday.

And the town of Binyamina, as one such outbreak site, became the first locale since early May to be designated “yellow” in the color-coded ranking system, after the number of people infected there rose from 45 to 80.

According to Health Ministry data, nearly 40 percent of COVID-19 cases found in Israel this month arrived from abroad. Of the 264 cases identified in the country since the beginning of June, 112 of them were people who flew into the country.

Health officials tie the recent outbreaks to the Delta variant of the virus, first identified in India, which is more contagious than other variants and may be better able to bypass vaccines.

Officials have expressed concern at the potential for the variant to cause something of a relapse of the pandemic, and are reportedly weighing renewing the indoor mask mandate lifted on June 15. Children are considered particularly vulnerable, as most are not vaccinated.

In light of these fears, Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Monday told the military to prepare to delay the closure of its coronavirus task force, known as the Ella Unit, which was scheduled for the end of this month.

“In light of the data, Gantz ordered [the military] to prepare to postpone the closure of the Ella Unit, which is responsible for epidemiological investigations and coordinates the investigations in cities that have outbreaks,” Gantz’s office said.

The defense minister also instructed the military to prepare for the possibility that it may have to again perform coronavirus tests or transport samples.

Amid these concerns, two of Israel’s main health maintenance organizations announced Monday that appointments for 12- to 15-year-olds to receive the shot have increased significantly in recent days. The Maccabi HMO said requests had quadrupled compared to previous weeks, and the Clalit HMO said appointments had gone up by roughly 100%, according to the Walla news site.

However, several experts urged calm on Monday, saying the country was doing well, and was unlikely to see a serious new outbreak.

“We may now see an increase in the number of infections of young people who are not vaccinated,” Eran Segal, a computational biologist at the Weizmann Institute of Science who has been studying the pandemic closely, told Channel 12. “But I do not think we are facing a resurgence [of the virus].

Eran Segal (courtesy of Eran Segal)

“The Indian variant is a continuation of COVID’s evolution, just like when the British variant was discovered. Whenever a new variant arrives it spreads rapidly following viral changes.”

According to Segal, Pfizer’s vaccine appears to be effective against the variant, and therefore the country likely won’t see a rise in serious cases and deaths as a result of the virus.

Ran Balicer, an epidemiologist who directs health policy planning for the Health Ministry, told the Ynet news site that there is no reason to panic, as a significant portion — some 85% — of Israel’s elderly population is vaccinated.

“Israel is largely immunized, and the chances of a wave of serious illness and mortality are not what they were in January,” he said. “The destructive potential of the virus is more contained here than in any other country, so everything must be done to prevent it from spreading, but also to calm the panic on the other hand.”

Professor Ran Balicer, head of innovation at Clalit, Israel’s biggest health services provider, in Tel Aviv on June 10, 2020 (EMMANUEL DUNAND / AFP)

On Friday, the Health Ministry temporarily suspended the requirement for travelers entering Israel to be tested for the coronavirus upon arrival, following crowding at the airport as a bottleneck formed around passengers waiting to be swabbed. At least 1,000 people entered without being tested, according to Kan news, though those arriving from countries deemed high risk — Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, India, Mexico and Russia — were not allowed to skip the test even if vaccinated, according to Hebrew media reports.

Balicer said that “there is no doubt that what happened at Ben Gurion Airport is unfortunate and should have looked different,” but added that the new variant was already in the country.

“The barrier of vaccination we have built may be sufficient to allow these outbreaks to remain contained and prevent a widespread community spread,” he told the site.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announced late Sunday that Israel would step up COVID-19 testing and restrictions at Ben Gurion Airport, as well as enforcement of quarantine for those arrivals required to self-isolate.

Travelers at the Ben Gurion International Airport, on June 20, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/FLASH90)

A national inoculation drive has seen most of the adult Israeli population vaccinated against COVID-19 and brought down new daily cases from thousands at the beginning of the year to 48 people diagnosed on Sunday and another 57 as of Monday morning — a slight rise on the rates seen in recent weeks.

At the height of the pandemic, there were 88,000 active cases in the country and 1,228 serious cases. As of Monday, there were 358 active infections and 24 people in serious condition.

Since the beginning of the outbreak early last year, 839,539 people have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in Israel and there have been 6,427 deaths from the disease.

There have been no deaths as a result of the virus since last Sunday.

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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