Israel needs a ‘Yom Kippur-like’ standstill

Easing lockdown now is a ‘big mistake,’ one hospital chief warns

Masad Barhoum of the Galilee Medical Center says hospitals struggling, low Arab inoculation rate a danger due to contact with unvaccinated Palestinians

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

Israelis play tennis on an empty road during lockdown, following the government's measures to help stop the spread of the coronavirus, in Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv, Israel, April 9, 2020. (AP/ Oded Balilty)
Israelis play tennis on an empty road during lockdown, following the government's measures to help stop the spread of the coronavirus, in Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv, Israel, April 9, 2020. (AP/ Oded Balilty)

Easing the lockdown is a “big mistake” and Israel should instead grind to a complete standstill for two weeks, “as it does on Yom Kippur,” a hospital head has claimed.

Masad Barhoum of the Galilee Medical Center in Nahariya is “very concerned about the morbidity we’re seeing,” and worried that if it continues hospitals “won’t be able to take care of everyone.” His comments came as the government prepared to meet on Monday to deliberate on an exit strategy from the current lockdown, which was first relaxed last week.

Barhoum, the first Arab director of a government hospital, sounded particular alarm regarding low vaccination rates among Arab Israelis, noting that they have contact with Palestinians, who are not yet vaccinated, and therefore could see continued high virus rates.

Only 23 percent of Arabs aged 16-plus are vaccinated, according to the Health Ministry, compared to 48% among the general population. The ministry calculations count everyone who is at least two weeks after their first shot.

Magen David Adom medical worker performs COVID-19 tests for Arab residents at a mobile testing station for COVID-19, in Jerusalem, July 5, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Barhoum issued a special plea to Arabs Israelis to vaccinate, during a visit to his hospital by President Reuven Rivlin on Sunday. “I implore you: Get the vaccine,” he declared in Arabic. “This is our only hope. Millions of people have been vaccinated and nothing bad or dangerous has happened to them.”

Currently, the Arab population has a markedly higher transmission rate than that of Israel as a whole: 0.95 compared to 0.84. This statistic refers to the average number of people a COVID-19 patient infects.

In Israel as a whole there are too many infections and too few vaccinations to justify the steps back to normalcy that are currently underway, Barhoum, who sits on a virus advisory committee to the Health Ministry, told The Times of Israel in an interview over the weekend.

“They are lifting the closure but it’s a big mistake,” he said. “We haven’t arrived at herd immunity yet, and I believe if you want to reach a point at which the nation could be strong — socially, economically, and in the education system — you should have at least 5 million people after their second injection.”

The vaccination campaign has seen a slowdown in recent days. The country is currently halfway to Barhoum’s vaccination target, with 2.5 million people after their second shot. Within three weeks, 1.5 million more people who have now had a first shot will be after their second shot — still 1 million short of Barhoum’s target.

A coronavirus ward at Galilee Medical Center (Ancho Gosh Jini Photo Agency via Galilee Medical Center)

“We should now have two weeks of closure that are like Yom Kippur, with no travel and no stores,” he argued. “In order to lower transmission rate we could vaccinate 1 million more and give hope. If you don’t have a continued closure we’ll have high morbidity and the hospitals won’t be able to overcome the pressure.”

On Sunday Barhoum gave the president a picture of extreme pressure in the hospital. “We work under constant shortages, and the coronavirus has clarified the need for medical staff,” he said. “We are short of at least 60 doctors to staff the wards. We are 20% short of staff. During this wave, we have treated 1,195 patients, around the clock.”

Barhoum told The Times of Israel that he is disappointed by the pace of under-50s going for vaccination, saying it is jarring in the context of what he sees on wards. “One-quarter of my COVID patients are under 50, and we even have a 22-year-old,” he said. “Some have chronic illnesses but some have no underlying conditions.

“I don’t know why under 50s aren’t rushing to vaccination centers. Maybe because they think it’s a disease of the elderly, but it’s not. And maybe because they are afraid of the vaccine, but they shouldn’t be; it’s very safe.”

On Sunday, Barhoum took Rivlin to meet Shimon Kakon, 57, from Acre. “I have been here for 12 days,” Kakon said. Before “I got here in a bad state, I did not understand the severity of this dreadful disease. I read and watched the news, but I didn’t understand. The staff here work like crazy, around the clock, and the country has to give them much more.”

Masad Barhoum (left) meets with President Reuven Rivlin at Galilee Medical Center on February 14, 2021 (courtesy of Galilee Medical Center)

Barhoum said he is particularly worried about vaccine hesitancy in the Arab community, where the pace is slower than in general society, “and this is a big problem, because if you want herd immunity you need a good percentage.”

He said that fake news is rampant among Arab Israelis, commenting: “They listen a lot to fake news and they are afraid to get the vaccine. There is lots and lots of fake news, suggesting things like the notion that the vaccine can change your DNA.”

The situation is particularly worrisome as many Arabs have contact with West Bank Palestinians, who aren’t vaccinated, Barhoum suggested.

“Many Palestinians enter Israel, some of them illegally,” he said. “We [also] know that Arabs go to [the Palestinian town of] Jenin and other cities, so if travel there becomes easy [post-lockdown] and if we’re not vaccinated this could be a problem. This is a very urgent issue.”

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