Former top health official warns government mistakes leading to third virus wave

Previous Health Ministry director Moshe Bar Siman-Tov says afterschool mixing of younger students is a weak point, localized lockdowns aren’t effective enough

Then Health Ministry director general Moshe Bar Siman-Tov speaks during a press conference about the coronavirus COVID-19, at the Health Ministry in Jerusalem on May 31, 2020. (Flash90)
Then Health Ministry director general Moshe Bar Siman-Tov speaks during a press conference about the coronavirus COVID-19, at the Health Ministry in Jerusalem on May 31, 2020. (Flash90)

Former Health Ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman-Tov has warned that the government’s policy on exiting Israel’s second national lockdown to curb the coronavirus spread is misguided and will lead to another wave of infections, the third since the start of the outbreak.

“Morbidity is on the rise, and we are making the same mistakes as last time,” Bar Siman-Tov said, referring to the exit from a previous national lockdown that was followed by a second, larger wave of infections.

Bar Siman-Tov resigned as Health Ministry director in May after leading the nation’s response to the first wave of coronavirus. His resignation came days after the cabinet voted, against his recommendation, to significantly ease coronavirus restrictions throughout the country, a move widely seen now as a mistake.

In an interview with the Yedioth Ahronoth daily, Bar Siman-Tov said that an effective strategy for preventing spread in schools was a key to success, and predicted that despite encouraging trials, there will be no vaccine available before the end of winter.

Excerpts of his comments were published on Wednesday, with the full interview to be included in the weekend paper.

There are “signs that indicate a third wave” of infections is coming, Bar Siman-Tov said and advised officials to find ways to keep the spread rate at a controllable level.

Another national lockdown, the third since the start of the outbreak, is “certainly” a possibility, he assessed.

Children wearing face masks study in a classroom of the Kramim school in Jerusalem on their first day back to classes after a national lockdown, November 1, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“The vector was and remains education,” Bar Siman-Tov said and criticized the current arrangement in which children in grades 1-4 study in pods of students who are kept separate during studies, but in afterschool care programs members of as many as three pods are permitted to mingle.

“It is as though we aren’t doing anything [to keep students separated],” he said.

“Aftercare is the weak point, because that is where they mingle,” he continued. “That is the most significant thing in my opinion.”

The education system was blamed as a major contributor to the spike in infections that followed the previous lockdown.

Any further opening of the education system should only be done with separated pods of students, Bar Siman-Tov advised.

Regarding national coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu’s so-called traffic light plan to divide the country into color-coded areas based on local infection rates and then apply localized closures accordingly, Bar Siman-Tov said the method can only ever be partially effective because the restrictions are never hermetic.

“In Jerusalem, many of the workers in the green areas come from red areas,” he said. “It cannot be prevented. In many ways, Israel is one epidemiological cell. If tomorrow the government approves a wedding with the participation of up to 50 people, then they will come from all regions.”

Then Health Ministry director general Manager Moshe Bar Siman-Tov at a press conference about the coronavirus COVID-19, at the Prime Ministers office in Jerusalem on March 11, 2020. (Flash90)

With winter approaching, flu infections, which have been serious over the previous two years, could put added burden on the healthcare system, impacting the “very good to excellent” level of care that coronavirus patients have enjoyed so far.

“Is hospital inefficiency a possibility? If there is a serious flu alongside the coronavirus, that could happen,” Bar Siman-Tov said.

“The winter is the biggest challenge at the moment for the health system,” he noted, predicting there will be no coronavirus vaccine available until after the coldest season of the year.

The recent reports from the US-based Pfizer pharmaceutical corporation that its vaccine, still under trial, has had strong success are encouraging, Bar Simantov said.

“There is hope here for something that might change the game,” he said. “I hope that the reports will continue to be optimistic, but at the same time it is important to understand that we will spend the coming winter without the vaccine.”

Health Ministry figures released Wednesday showed that there were 663 virus cases diagnosed the day before, still above the target of 500 daily cases that health officials have identified as a condition for any further easing of the lockdown.

There are 8,105 active patients, 304 of whom are in serious condition, with 126 on ventilators. There have been 320,849 cases in Israel since the start of the outbreak and 2,683 people have died.

A drop in the number of new daily cases, achieved during the ongoing national lockdown, has recently leveled off amid a gradual reopening, leading Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and health officials to warn that if the numbers begin to climb there will be no further easing of restrictions.

People stand in line outside stores in Jerusalem after they were permitted to reopen following a national lockdown due to the coronavirus outbreak, on November 8, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel sharply brought down its daily coronavirus infection rates from some 8,000 in mid-September to several hundred by late October with the nationwide lockdown, its second since the start of the pandemic. It has remained stubbornly above 500 a day, though, on most days with 30,000 tests or more.

The lockdown paralyzed much of public life and the economy and shuttered the entire education system. The government began removing some restrictions a few weeks ago, opening preschools and kindergartens, then grades 1-4, as well permitting some street businesses to begin operations. The rest of the education system has continued with remote learning.

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