Bold or shortsighted? Praise and outrage for Israel’s abolition of kids’ quarantine

Doing away with isolation for kids after exposure to virus at Omicron’s peak is ‘devastating’ error in policy, says expert, but another thinks it’s a logical way to deal with wave

Nathan Jeffay

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

Illustrative image: Israeli children at the Pola school in Jerusalem, September 1, 2021. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
Illustrative image: Israeli children at the Pola school in Jerusalem, September 1, 2021. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Precisely as Omicron is peaking, Israel has abolished mandatory quarantine for kids exposed to COVID. One of the most-used weapons in the two-year war against the coronavirus has been laid down. It’s a bold disarmament according to some experts, and in the eyes of others, plain stupid.

In a country with 1 in 20 people confirmed infected and many more unknowingly carrying the virus, the assumption is now that kids are getting exposed, regularly.

A new Israeli slang term came into being in recent weeks — “Dear Parents,” referring to the text messages that were arriving thick and fast, telling parents to isolate their kids, if unvaccinated, because a classmate has COVID. These isolation instructions stopped being sent on on January 27.

Now, parents are supposed to instead do twice-weekly home tests, no more and no less, regardless of how many times their children are exposed to the virus. This means the end of quarantine for unvaccinated kids, and for vaccinated kids it means the end of the requirement to test after each exposure.

Adults are still subject to quarantine after exposure if they aren’t vaccinated or recently recovered — and must run a home test if they are. And measures like masks remain, while testing is advised for all before meeting the elderly. When people test positive in home tests they must go for official testing and then stay home for at least five days.

Prof. Dvir Aran said he is staggered by the relaxed policy, which kicked in on January 27. “The shortsightedness of the government is devastating,” he told The Times of Israel. “It amazes me they think we don’t really need to do so much anymore against the virus.”

A child is swabbed for COVID-19 at a drive through testing complex in Modi’in, on February 1, 2022. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Aran, who runs a biomedical data science lab at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, thinks the government should have fought infection far more ferociously throughout the Omicron wave.

“The biggest mistake is the notion, which has become common, that if we let it spread quickly then we will get it over with quickly,” he said. “This has shaped policy, but it doesn’t work like that.”

He believes that state decisions have led, and will continue to lead, to unnecessary infections, which will extend the wave longer than it would have lasted had stricter measures reduced Omicron’s spread.

Dr. Amnon Lahad (Courtesy of Amnon Lahad)

However, epidemiologist Prof. Amnon Lahad, chairman of Israel’s National Council for Community Health, disagrees.

“The whole point is that if we’re talking about achieving herd immunity, when infection goes faster we’ll get to herd immunity quicker,” he said in an interview with The Times of Israel.

“And instead of a long ping-pong process where some of us are getting immunity as others lose it, we’ll all get to immunity at the same time.” This can bring community-wide protection, and defend Israel against future infection, he said.

“I think the quarantine decisions are the right decisions,” Lahad affirmed. “Again and again we see that kids are not the engine of this disease, yet they have paid a heavy cost being isolated after every exposure.

“Immunization is preventing many of Israel’s severe cases and much of the mortality, and the new approach is a case of us living with the virus.”

Lahad said that now, even at what appears to be the peak of the wave, hospitals have not exceeded their capacity, and therefore easing regulations is appropriate.

“The medical system is not breaking down and we’re seeing we can manage this level of infection. Cases are now starting to go down, so the easing makes sense,” he said.

But Aran is convinced that the government’s decision-making will lead to more disruption, not less, both in general and, especially, in schools. His logic is that the more cases there are, the longer it will take for the downward curve of infections to straighten out, and the more weeks there will be with large numbers of kids catching the coronavirus.

“Are we trying to make this wave longer?” he asked, insisting that “this approach is not going to bring schools back to normal. The way to get back to normal is to reduce infection.”

Epidemiologist Ronit Calderon-Margalit of the Hebrew University subscribes to a similar logic as Lahad — but says that the timing for abolishing kids’ quarantine is all wrong.

She has said in the past that children have been “punished” as if they are vectors of infection when they aren’t. The recent change is “overdue” and the current thinking “should have been the attitude long ago,” she argued in a Times of Israel interview this week.

Prof. Ronit Calderon-Margalit(courtesy of Hebrew University)

However, she said, the timing of the change in policy, at the peak of the wave, was incorrect.

“Such a huge change right at the height of infections doesn’t make sense. Either it should’ve been done months ago, or we should wait two weeks until infections have decreased,” she said.

“If what we’re wishing for is a sense of everyday life, that’s not going to be preserved now, as there will be many people sick. And if teachers are sick there won’t be class,” she said.

Calderon-Margalit said that the twice-weekly antigen tests for students will help to limit the extra spread of infection caused by lifting the required isolation, but she believes they are not frequent enough and should instead be performed every second day.

“It’s not the wrong decision, but it is the wrong timing” to end isolation for children, said Calderon-Margalit. “It just doesn’t make sense now to instigate infection. This could prolong the wave. What do we gain from these two weeks? For me it’s not clear.”

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