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Despite pandemic, Israel’s death rate dropped 12% in March compared to last year

Some experts attribute oddity to canceled surgeries and reduced hospital visits, but warn trend will be reversed in the long-term and ultimately lead to more fatalities

The coronavirus unit at the Ichilov hospital, Tel Aviv, Israel, May 4, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
The coronavirus unit at the Ichilov hospital, Tel Aviv, Israel, May 4, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Israel’s overall deaths per month dropped to the lowest rate in four years, in a curious discrepancy that some experts attributed to reduced surgeries and hospital visits.

Despite the coronavirus, the month of March saw a 12 percent drop in the number of deaths compared to last year and a five percent drop compared to the average monthly rate (4,066) from the past decade.

A total of 3,875 people died in March 2020, compared to 4,398 in March 2019, according to The Times of Israel’s Hebrew-language sister site Zman Yisrael, which cited Interior Ministry statistics. That’s the lowest figure recorded since March 2016.

Israel saw just 20 of its 237 virus deaths in March, but most elective hospital treatments and surgeries were scrapped as medical services geared up for mass hospitalizations of virus victims.

While Israel’s local authorities and experts don’t have an official explanation for the figures, one of the hypotheses being raised is that these steps contributed to the lower death rate nationwide.

“Much of the decrease in deaths likely stems from the decreased medical treatments, including the cancellation of surgeries, check-ups and hospitalizations in wards that were cleared as part of preparations for treating coronavirus victims,” said Prof. Nadav Davidovitch of Ben Gurion University, an epidemiologist and public health expert.

Prof. Nadav Davidovitch. (Ben Gurion University)

“But the death toll in March is not finalized and occasionally it later emerges that there were others who died and [whose deaths] were not yet reported to the local authorities,” he continued, adding, “but the change is significantly large enough to try and draw conclusions.”

“Our experience from similar situations in which elective procedures [were canceled], primarily over doctors’ strikes and wars, shows that these cancellations cause a drop in death rates in the short term, because many people die from infections while hospitalized, after undergoing surgery or invasive testing.”

But, he added, in the long-term, many more will die as a result of delaying these treatments.

The reverberating long-term effects, he said, are similar for suicides.

He said that “in emergency situations and [when] anxiety over survival [is high], like during wars, fewer people will commit suicide than during normal times. However, when the emergency situation ends, it leaves behind people with traumas and depression and the number of suicides rises. This time, [the suicide rate] will likely increase, because of unemployment and the financial crisis.”

Medical workers treat a patient at the coronavirus ward at Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv on May 4, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

In a letter to the Health Ministry and National Security Council, Davidovitch and 14 other senior doctors warned of the effects of delaying elective procedures.

“The result will be a future rise in death rates, in disabilities and disease,” they wrote. “The State of Israel is headed toward a long period of living with the infectious virus, during which we must see public health in its entirely and work to reduce the overall death and illness rates.”

More die at home in March

Citing hospital data, Zman Yisrael said the number of those seeking emergency treatment at Israel’s hospitals has dropped by 50%-80% amid the pandemic.

The report also noted that the difference in death rates was not explained by a drop in car accidents amid a lockdown on much of the country, which slid from 25 road deaths last March to 16 this year. Some 95% of deaths in Israel are due to illness.

Meanwhile, the Magen David Adom emergency service recorded a 22% rise in the number of those who died at home between March 12 and April 12, as compared to a year earlier.

A Magen David Adom medic and a hospital worker wearing protective clothing outside the coronavirus unit at Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem on April 30, 2020. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

It said 1,115 people died at home that month, compared to 909 the year prior.

Magen David Adom attributed the rise to fears of seeking emergency treatment due to the coronavirus, while some of the home fatalities could be undiagnosed victims of the pathogen.

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