A team of Hebrew University of Jerusalem experts on Saturday urged the government to take immediate action to curb the COVID-19 outbreak in the country, predicting the daily caseload could rise to 1,000 in two weeks if no steps are taken.
The experts also cautiously estimated that the vaccines are 60-80 percent effective in preventing contagion when faced with the Delta variant, as compared to 90% for other strains, though they stressed the immunization’s effectiveness in preventing serious illness appeared to remain as high as previously estimated.
Israeli officials are said set to weigh reinstating some virus restrictions as the highly contagious COVID-19 Delta variant continues to spread in the country. The recently renewed coronavirus cabinet is expected to meet this week to consider the country’s next steps.
The cabinet last met on Sunday to discuss increased testing and enforcement on Israel’s borders, but did not add any major new restrictions on the public after the indoor mask mandate was reintroduced last Friday. Amid a rise in cases, the government has been promoting vaccinations for children and teenagers aged 12-15, with over 100,000 shots administered to this age group in recent weeks, according to the Health Ministry.
Israel’s daily caseload currently stands at around 300, after months in which cases hovered around the low dozens following its widespread vaccination campaign. According to the Health Ministry, 31 people are currently in serious condition, a slight increase over recent weeks.
In a new report released Saturday, Hebrew University experts said that without new restrictions, “we won’t see a slowdown and it appears it will be difficult to avoid reaching 1,000 new infections per day in two weeks’ time. We emphasize that the effect of the masks is not currently seen.”
The experts cautioned that any further stalling by the government would “require more serious steps in the future to achieve the same effect.”
They recommended the government enforce mask-wearing indoors, take care to protect vulnerable and elderly populations, and reinstate the “Green Pass” system that restricts access to some venues to the unvaccinated.
“The vaccines appear to be less effective in preventing contagion than in the past, around 60%-80%, as compared to the alpha variant of over 90%. At this stage, there is no investigation in Israel on the efficacy of the vaccine in [preventing] serious illness, but in the world it is seen that this protection remains as it was in the past,” added the Hebrew University report.
While there is currently insufficient evidence to link the resurgence of the coronavirus to a rise in serious cases among the vaccinated, they added, “significant steps” must nonetheless be taken to prevent such a scenario.
The authors of the report are physicists Yinon Ashkenazi, Michael Asaf, Doron Gazit, Nadav Katz; epidemiologist Ronit Calderon-Margalit; senior physician and infectious diseases specialist Ran Nir-Paz; and physicist Hilla De-Leon of the University of Toronto.
Former Health Ministry deputy director-general Itamar Grotto has also said the country should consider returning to the Green Pass system, which differentiates between vaccinated and non-vaccinated citizens regarding access to certain venues and activities.
“We have all tools that we did not have before, including the number of tests and the face masks… and the vaccines. All of these together, and the additional step of reimposing the Green Pass system, should be considered,” Grotto told Channel 13 on Saturday.
The program, which ended on June 1, allowed those vaccinated or recovered from the coronavirus to dine indoors at restaurants and attend cultural events.
Reports suggest that officials have been considering implementing such a move among others meant to curb infections, such as restrictions on gatherings.
While the rate of infection currently appears to be rising in a similar manner to previous waves, serious cases requiring hospitalizations are spiking much more slowly.
Ran Balicer, an epidemiologist who directs health policy planning at Clalit, said that despite the rate of hospitalizations increasing slower than expected, it should still be closely monitored.
The spike in cases, blamed on the ultra-infectious Delta variant, comes as Israel races to vaccinate its preteens and teenagers aged 12-15, with nearly 10,000 first-shot immunizations administered Friday.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett appealed to young teens on Sunday to get vaccinated in order to avert restrictions, and declared: “We do not want to impose any limits — not on parties, or on trips, or on anything.”
Israel has a reported 1.4 million doses set to expire at the end of July and Bennett is hoping to use as many of them as possible by getting 300,000 children vaccinated by July 9, leaving enough time for a second dose.
According to a Channel 12 report Wednesday night, to prevent vaccines from being tossed, Israel engaged in advanced talks with the UK to provide millions of Pfizer vaccines within days in return for London supplying it with one of its future shipments from Pfizer at a later date. That agreement appeared to have fallen through but Jerusalem is now in contact with two other countries to possibly agree on a swap, according to reports on Friday.
Israel purchased millions of vaccines from Pfizer and was among the first countries to receive them, for an undisclosed amount. It inked a deal in April under former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu for 18 million more doses, in case they are needed for booster shots.
Health Ministry figures on Saturday showed that 460 new coronavirus cases were confirmed this weekend. The figure included 323 recorded Friday and another 137 since midnight Saturday. The infections bring the number of active cases to 2,398. Friday’s figures were the highest since April 6.
Patients in serious condition with COVID-19 complications went up slightly to 31, as of Saturday. The death toll remains at 6,429, with only one fatality recorded in the past two weeks.
The ministry said the positive test rate for both Saturday and Friday was at 0.5 percent, similar to the preceding few days. Over 69,000 tests were conducted Friday.
Despite the rise in cases, the positivity rate in recent weeks is still significantly lower than January’s near 10% rate during the so-called third virus wave.
The Health Ministry expects daily coronavirus diagnoses to jump to 500-600 next week, according to media reports Wednesday.
According to the ministry, over 5.62 million people — out of Israel’s population of more than 9.3 million — have gotten at least one vaccine shot. Of those, close to 5.2 million received a second dose.