Reporter's notebook

Back in COVID mode, Binyamina residents fear new wave starting under their noses

As Israel returns to post-pandemic life, in this small town quarantine orders keep arriving and masks are back in use amid concerns that celebrations were premature

Nathan Jeffay

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Shai Berlin behind a newly re-erected Perspex screen in his hardware store in Binyamina on June 21, 2021. (Nathan Jeffay/Times of Israel)
Shai Berlin behind a newly re-erected Perspex screen in his hardware store in Binyamina on June 21, 2021. (Nathan Jeffay/Times of Israel)

BINYAMINA — In a country declared “green” and COVID-safe, Binyamina is the first town to be downgraded to “yellow,” and some residents fear it may be a sign of things to come for the rest of Israel.

Binyamina, a small town nestled in the foothills of Mount Carmel and best known for its wineries, suddenly has 43 confirmed cases representing 27 cases per 10,000 residents, four times more than anywhere else in the country and more than a tenth of the nation’s 358 cases.

It is an unexpected twist, coming just a week after Israel wiped away the last of its major virus rules — the wearing of masks indoors.

Under Israel’s “traffic light” system of COVID restrictions meant to differentiate between locales based on their respective coronavirus infection rates, “red” places are subject to the strictest restrictions followed by “orange,” “yellow,” and “green” ones, with the latter currently enjoying almost no restrictions.

In this town between Tel Aviv and Haifa, masks are once again widely worn, and there are concerns that if the infection spreads from here, it could compromise Israel’s near-virus-proof state.

This is because the Binyamina outbreak is part of a bigger picture: The Delta variant of the virus, first identified in India, is making inroads to Israel.

Israel’s leaders are intensely focused on fighting this variant, acutely aware that daily positive cases have more than doubled since June 16, from 15 a day to 31, according to a seven-day moving average. On Monday, there were 125 new cases, — the largest one-day figure since April — the Health Ministry reported on Tuesday morning.

Hebrew media reported that some 70 percent of the new COVID-19 cases are the Delta variant, which is more contagious than other variants. Concerns have been raised that it may be better able to bypass vaccines, but new large-scale research from the UK suggests that the Pfizer vaccine, which Israel uses, is 96% effective against hospitalization or death caused by the Delta variant.

Israeli youth receive Covid-19 vaccines at a Clalit Covid-19 vaccination center in Petah Tikva, on June 6, 2021. (Flash90)

The atmosphere in Binyamina on Monday was reminiscent of the nervous uncertainty when the virus first struck Israel in the spring of 2020. Parent after parent, each with a child in tow, showed up at the Eshkolot School asking what time the virus testing started. The kids were all in newly imposed quarantine due to contact with a COVID carrier, only allowed out so their swabs could be taken.

Then suddenly, as the test-seeking parents waited, there was a new influx of parents at the gate: moms and dads whose children just received new quarantine orders, apparently because a virus patient had been confirmed in their class.

Shai Berlin, 40, said that Binyamina was being dragged back to the worst days of the pandemic with dizzying speed. “There’s a real sense of confusion,” he said. Asked how many children he was picking up from school for quarantine, he said laconically: “My 9-year-old daughter for now, but who knows, it could well be my other child by the end of the day.”

Shai Berlin in Binyamina on June 21, 2021 (Nathan Jeffay/Times of Israel)

Despite reassuring data, parents were discussing fears that the outbreak could compromise vaccine protection in Binyamina and then elsewhere. “I’m hearing people discussing the possibility that the vaccine may not fully protect from this variant,” said Berlin.

Among older locals, those most at risk if the variant — or a subsequent mutation — were to break through their vaccine protection, caution was the order of the day. Hardware store owner Adi Polak, 72, has re-erected the plexiglass screen on his counter, to separate him from customers, even though it’s no longer required by law. He also demands that everyone entering the shop wear a mask.

“It’s clearly too early to say goodbye to masks and return to normalcy,” he said. “Vaccines are doing a good job but COVID cases are coming from outside Israel.

“With some of these variants, while I’m vaccinated I think I could catch the virus. So I’ll continue wearing my mask and ensuring that everyone who comes in here does the same.”

Back at the school, Eilat Levi was “worried” about the ramifications of the Binyamina outbreak, aware that it could spread via children, most of whom aren’t yet vaccinated, and fearing the possibility that it could dodge the vaccine.

Eilat Levi and her son Amir in Binyamina on June 21, 2021 (Nathan Jeffay/Times of Israel)

She arrived with her quarantined son Amir to get him tested, and they both spoke of their frustration over the outbreak. According to Health Ministry data, nearly 40% of COVID-19 cases found in Israel this month arrived from abroad, and Binyamina parents are convinced the local outbreak is from children who traveled and didn’t observe the mandatory quarantine on their return.

“There is anger among people here, toward those who travel and don’t quarantine,” said Levi. “The message to the contrary from Binyamina should be not to take unvaccinated kids abroad, and if you do, not to break quarantine.”

Most of Israel is celebrating newfound freedom from COVID. High school students enjoyed their first day of summer vacation on Monday, and younger kids were engaged in end-of-year parties and graduation ceremonies.

But not here.

Amir Levi said he had been planning a week of soccer and fun with friends, a far cry from the quarantine he is enduring.

A mother called Iris, trying to get her quarantined 16-year-old son tested, complained: “It’s the end of the year and the kids have parties, but everything has been canceled. This is all happening just as we were starting to feel that the virus is behind us.”

Eran Segal (courtesy)

Weizmann Institute computational biologist Prof. Eran Segal, an expert on coronavirus trends and statistics, told The Times of Israel he thinks that the Binyamina outbreak should be taken seriously, but said there is “no need for panic.”

He commented: “The data available to us suggests that the Pfizer vaccine is as effective against the Delta variant as among other variants.

“It should be noted that while we have seen increased cases in the last week, putting us now at 358 active cases, we have only 24 severely ill in hospitals and many of these are existing cases.

“I don’t anticipate a return to the scale of the pandemic that we saw a few months ago,” Segal said.

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