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Data shows coronavirus pushed Israel’s 2020 death rate up by as much as 10%

Outbreak of pandemic reversed a steady drop in mortality; ultra-Orthodox and Arab Israeli communities worst hit by infections

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

A technician collects nasal swab samples for COVID-19 at the coronavirus lab, at the Ben-Gurion International Airport on February 28, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
A technician collects nasal swab samples for COVID-19 at the coronavirus lab, at the Ben-Gurion International Airport on February 28, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

The coronavirus outbreak pushed Israel’s mortality rate up from its lowest-ever level at the start of 2020 to numbers not seen since the 1990s, according to a report published Monday.

The number of deaths in the country rose by 7 percent during 2020 compared to the years 2017-2019, taking into consideration population growth, the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies said in its report. However, considering the fact that the figures had been expected to decrease without the virus spread, the mortality rate actually rose by about 10%, according to study author Prof. Alex Weinreb.

During the first 11 weeks of the year mortality dropped by 7%, after which the effects of the virus outbreak began to be felt. Without the virus outbreak, there would have been around a 2.5% drop in mortality in 2020 compared to 2017-2019, Weinreb assessed. That would have continued what had been a steady decline in annual mortality rates.

Overall, the excess mortality rate was still lower than what may have been expected as a result of the pandemic, given the age structure of the population and the patterns of infection, the Taub Center said in a statement.

“Although this is a significant increase, it is lower than the increase in other countries,” the statement said. It highlighted the situation in the United States, where mortality has gone up by 18%.

Worst hit were the ultra-Orthodox and Arab communities, where increased rates of infection and mortality resulted “in a more substantial increase in excess mortality,” according to the statement.

About half of those aged 65-plus who were infected by mid-October were from the ultra-Orthodox community, and virus-related mortality rates there were four times higher than the community’s share in the general population, which is around 12%.

There was a similar picture in the Arab Israeli community, although rather than it being due to high infection rates the study blamed underlying conditions, in particular diabetes and heart disease, which are common in the community.

The report also identified an overall significant drop in the proportion of those aged 60 or older who were infected after the first wave of the virus, when compared to their share of the population, indicating “some success in protecting older Israelis from infection.” In total, from the onset of the pandemic, “confirmed infections were disproportionately in the 20-55-year-old age group.”

Charts of mortality rates in Israel during 2020, compared to the years 2017-2019. (Courtesy: Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel)

For the first two months of 2020, mortality rates were at their lowest ever, less than 11 deaths a week per 100,000 people, a drop of 7% compared to the same period in each of the years from 2017-2019.

The coronavirus first began to make an impact at the end of March. From July to the beginning of October, when Israel was experiencing a second wave, excess mortality reached a peak of 30%, driving up the overall mortality to levels last seen in the 1990s, a time when life expectancy in Israel was about four years lower than it is now.

In the over-55 age group mortality was particularly low in the first two months of the year, and even more so among those over 65. From mid-March to mid-July, during the first wave, mortality for those age groups rose to levels seen in 2017-2019 and then continued to go up to “uncharacteristic heights” especially among the 65-74 age group.

“This means that the excess mortality associated with the coronavirus has outweighed the sharp decline in mortality rates among the younger ages,” the statement said.

In the 0-19 age group mortality in 2020 was 23% lower than in 2017-2019, and among 20-29 year-olds it was 4% lower.

“These trends support the claim that the decline in mortality in the general population has continued,” the study assessed.

Identifying mortality from the coronavirus is “a rather challenging task” due to the difficulties in determining if the virus was the primary cause of death, a contributing factor, or a background characteristic, the statement said. The health status of the patients, whether they were already close to death before infection or expected to have lived for many more years, is another relevant factor.

In addition, the diversion of healthcare resources to dealing with the virus outbreak influences the treatment of other medical conditions, which could also have had an indirect influence on mortality rates.

Since the start of the virus outbreak last year, 781,857 people in Israel have been diagnosed with coronavirus, according to Health Ministry figures released Tuesday. The death toll stood at 5,779.

Israel has combated the COVID-19 outbreak with lockdown measures and a rapid mass inoculation campaign that has so far given the first of the two-dose Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to 4,772,078 people, over half the population. Of those, 3,439,919 have also had the second shot.

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