Expert: Israel’s virus levels so bad many countries would’ve already locked down
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As number of new cases hits record high of 3,000 in 24 hours

Expert: Israel’s virus levels so bad many countries would’ve already locked down

Epidemiologist Ora Paltiel warns of a ‘lack of trust in governmental decisions,’ says ‘underfunded, under-bedded, under-manpowered’ healthcare system could soon be in real trouble

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

A healthcare worker takes samples from Israelis to test them for the coronavirus at a mobile testing station in the central city of Ramle, August 18, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
A healthcare worker takes samples from Israelis to test them for the coronavirus at a mobile testing station in the central city of Ramle, August 18, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Authorities in much of the world would have already imposed a lockdown if they faced Israel’s current coronavirus rates, but the government in Jerusalem lacks the public trust for strong measures, a top epidemiologist said Thursday.

“I think many countries would have already initiated a lockdown with these kinds of numbers,” said Ora Paltiel, professor at the Braun School of Public Health and Department of Hematology at Hadassah-Hebrew University.

She was giving a briefing to journalists soon after the Health Ministry revealed that over 3,000 new COVID-19 diagnoses had been confirmed the previous day, setting a new record, and as the ministers were reportedly considering new local lockdown measures.

Paltiel believes that one of the reasons new strict measures haven’t happened so far is “the lack of trust in governmental decisions by the general population.” She thinks other reasons include the economic consequences of a lockdown, and the fact that hospitals aren’t yet being overwhelmed.

Illustrative: An elderly patient is treated for coronavirus (iStock)

However, she cautioned that it’s too soon to say that Israel’s health system will weather the pandemic, warning that a combination of flu and coronavirus in the winter “could very well overwhelm the health system.”

She said: “The health system is coping but a few weeks down the road, after we have 3,000 cases a day for a few days, and even 2 percent of them get sick, really sick, then we could definitely stress the healthcare system we have, which is underfunded, under-bedded, and under-manpowered.”

Giving an assessment of the current situation she said: “There’s no denying that there’s a very severe epidemic going on and we have, hand-in-hand with the increased number of cases, an increased number of severe cases and the mortality is also rising.”

There are currently 23,938 active cases, with 855 patients in the hospital, 426 of them in serious condition. There have been 976 deaths.

Ora Paltiel, professor at the Braun School of Public Health and Department of Hematology at Hadassah-Hebrew University (Jared Bernstein)

In Paltiel’s analysis, trust in authorities has been badly dented since the first lockdown in the spring, and “this rupture in public trust is a big threat to the government.”

Asked if Israel’s policy now mimics that of Sweden, a country that rejected lockdowns under all circumstances, she said: “No one says that explicitly, but that’s the way that things have been going.”

She warned that while it has been said that Swedish culture involves an extent of natural social distancing, this isn’t the case in Israel, where gatherings are common and people tend to hug and engage in other forms of physical contact.

Noting that the government’s coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu has been criticized from within the cabinet, she said there was “a lack of trust even among the decision makers, which is making decision-making more difficult.”

Paltiel said that delaying schools’ reopening would have been wise, and it is clear that resumption of classes makes the virus’s spread likely.

She noted that ultra-Orthodox schools reopened around 10 days ago, and there has already been an increase in infections among their students. She said it is “very disturbing” that Chaim Kanievsky, a top rabbi of the ultra-Orthodox community, has reportedly instructed yeshiva students not to be tested for the coronavirus, in order to avoid closures of schools and mass quarantines.

Discussing the general education system, Paltiel said that as it only opened two days ago, it’s too early to asses the level of transmission. However, she argued education chiefs haven’t gone far enough in limiting group sizes in schools to reduce infection risks, saying it’s a “concern” that kindergartens and grades one to two are studying in full-size classes.

“We weren’t good enough in planning to have small class sizes for all children,” she said.

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