Gaza enters second coronavirus wave, with 25% of tests coming back positive

For weeks, the coastal enclave enjoyed a lull, even as as a surge in infections shook the West Bank. But with thousands of new cases, a new wave is officially here

A medical worker of UNRWA gives a shot of the Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine at UNRWA's clinic in the Rafah, in the southern Gaza, on March 3, 2021. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
A medical worker of UNRWA gives a shot of the Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine at UNRWA's clinic in the Rafah, in the southern Gaza, on March 3, 2021. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

With cases spiking, the Gaza Strip has entered a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic, health officials in the coastal enclave told The Times of Israel on Monday.

Gaza saw 815 new coronavirus cases in 24 hours, the Gaza Health Ministry reported on Monday. The total number of active infections nearly tripled over the past two weeks, from 2,291 to 6,619.

The daily rate of positive tests in Gaza has skyrocketed to 25 percent over the past 24 hours, according to Hamas health officials. The high positivity rate indicates that the virus is likely spreading widely undetected.

“We’re in a new wave. The virus curve is rising by the day. We expect the rate of positive tests to also continue to rise,” said Dr. Aed Yaghi, who directs the Gaza branch of the Palestinian Medical Relief Society, a nonprofit that provides health services throughout the coastal enclave.

Hamas police officer guards while workers unload a truck from 40,000 doses of Russian Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine upon its arrival to Gaza Strip, at the Rafah crossing border with Egypt, in Rafah, Gaza Strip, March 11, 2021. (Adel Hana/AP)

Hamas, the enclave’s de facto rulers, declared a nightly curfew over the weekend in an attempt to contain the surge in cases.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, 63,742 Gazans have been infected with the novel coronavirus, and 604 have died.

Both the terror group and international observers have warned that the Gaza health system — worn down by years of an Israeli-Egyptian blockade and three wars between Israel and the enclave’s rulers — is ill-equipped to handle a severe spike in cases.

“Gaza is blockaded and enormously densely populated…We have a lack of oxygen with which to treat patients, and we currently only have enough medication to treat coronavirus patients to last for the next three months,” Hamas health official Munir al-Bursh estimated in a phone call.

According to al-Bursh, Gaza has only two PCR machines — used to process COVID-19 tests — greatly limiting health officials’ ability to test for the virus and track its spread.

With a population of 2 million, Gaza conducts between two to three thousand coronavirus tests per day. Israel, in contrast, with a population of 9.25 million, conducted over 120,000 daily tests at the height of its struggle against the virus.

The Hamas Health Ministry also announced on Monday that the deadly, quick-spreading British variant of the virus had been detected for the first time in the Gaza Strip. Al-Bursh warned that testing to identify variants was also limited, leaving the true number of those infected in doubt.

While the first cases of the coronavirus arrived in the West Bank in early March last year, the Gaza Strip managed to prevent an outbreak for months through harsh quarantine restrictions.

The first cases of community spread were recorded in late August, nearly six months into the pandemic. Infections spiked in mid-December, with nearly 45% of tests coming back positive.

A harsh lockdown by Hamas health authorities then managed to curb the spread of the virus. Life in Gaza slowly began to return to normal, with schools, mosques and popular markets coming back to life in early February.

The lull in cases did not last, however. Over the past week, thousands of new infections were recorded in the Gaza Strip. Yaghi blamed what he deemed “reckless” behavior by Gaza residents.

“People thought that the virus was over and done with. Of course, that was wrong,” he said.

Palestinians in the streets of the Rafah refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip, on January 26, 2021. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Health officials have scrambled to expand Gaza’s hospital capacity to deal with a surge in cases. But some gaps — such as in frontline health care workers — will be more challenging to fill.

“We’re losing doctors and nurses every day. Just yesterday, we lost a team member from Rafah who specialized in drawing and analyzing coronavirus samples. Before that, a young man, a 35-year-old doctor,” al-Bursh said.

Gaza has also been slow to start its anti-coronavirus immunization campaign. Around 60,000 Russian Sputnik V doses, sent by the United Arab Emirates, have arrived in the coastal enclave; another 2,000 were transferred by the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. Gaza has also received 20,000 Pfizer and AstraZeneca doses through COVAX, an international vaccine program backed by the WHO.

Those doses are enough to fully immunize just 1.9 percent of Gaza’s total population. But health officials say that residents have also hesitated to take the shots that have already arrived in the Strip.

“We ought to see an enormous rush to get vaccinated. But although we have 82,000 doses in our hands, only around 25,000 have been used so far,” al-Bursh said.

According to al-Bursh, fear of the shot’s potential effects — spurred by fake news about its dangers — had chilled turnout among Gazans.

“There’s apprehension and fear that have entered popular consciousness regarding the vaccine. Just like what happened [in Israel] and what’s happened in many countries. People are coming to be vaccinated, but we need to see more,” al-Bursh said.

Yaghi told The Times of Israel that even many Gaza doctors were skeptical of the vaccine. According to a study conducted by Yaghi’s nonprofit with the World Health Organization, more than 50% of Gaza healthcare workers do not want to take the vaccine.

The Palestinian Ministry of Health crews conduct random checks through blood in the town of Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on January 14, 2021. For the first time, preventive medicine will contact citizens to complete hundreds of checks during blood sampling, to avoid violating the curfew measures. The blood test helps measure anti-bodies. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

“We see people that are scared of the virus’s long-term effects,” Yaghi said.

If Gaza has one advantage against the current virus wave, it is its relatively young population, many of whom may have already survived a bout with the virus. A study conducted in early February by Hamas health authorities found some 40% of Gazans had coronavirus antibodies.

“When it comes to that figure, I believe that the true number is actually higher,” al-Bursh speculated.

If two-fifths of Gazans have already had coronavirus, that would mean the death rate in Gaza is extremely low — far less than 1%.

Both Yaghi and al-Bursh attributed Gaza’s surprising immunity to its relatively young population. Just 2.7% of Gazans are over the age of 65, compared to around 12% of Israelis.

“Gaza is small. Everyone who dies — both them and their families are known [to authorities]. No one could successfully cover up such a matter,” al-Bursh said.

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