Global loser: Israel’s sky-high infection rate almost 3 times any other in world

‘I’m very worried,’ says doctor on front lines. As Jewish state gets attention for all the wrong reasons, stats expert says world should learn from Israel: Don’t make its mistakes

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

Magen David Adom workers wearing protective clothing outside the coronavirus unit at Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem, September 14, 2020 (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Magen David Adom workers wearing protective clothing outside the coronavirus unit at Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem, September 14, 2020 (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Israel has the world’s worst daily coronavirus infection numbers per capita for the last week — a rate almost three times higher than the next badly-hit country, global data indicated Tuesday.

In terms of the national case count, over the last seven days Israel has seen an average of 703 new daily diagnoses per million citizens, according to figures from Our World In Data, citing information from the European CDC. Spain had 234 confirmed cases per million citizens, with France at 185 and the US at 133. Numbers from John Hopkins University, computed by the National Bank of Canada, showed similar results.

And while leaders in Jerusalem have taken solace in the country’s low mortality rates even in the face of rising case numbers, Israel has now overtaken the United States, and is also leading the global table for daily deaths per capita over the last week, with some 3.5 deaths per million citizens.

On the front lines of the virus fight, there is a sense that while international comparisons were treated cautiously in the past — as they can be attributed to Israel’s high testing rates and other factors — they now tell a story that is unquestionably dire.

“I’m very worried,” said Dror Mevorach of Jerusalem’s Hadassah Medical Center. “I see the people, I see the deaths, I see the prolonged disease.”

Magen David Adom workers wearing protective clothing outside the coronavirus unit at Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem, on September 10, 2020. (Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Mevorach spoke to The Times of Israel on Tuesday, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that the national lockdown will last longer than had been planned, and as the number of seriously ill coronavirus patients in Israel passed the 800 mark for the first time. This is a number cited in the past by health officials as the maximum Israeli hospitals can adequately cope with.

Mevorach, head of Hadassah’s internal medicine division, said that young people, as well as the elderly, should be concerned. “Some 50 percent of the people hospitalized here at Hadassah are under 60,” he stated. “And although a big percentage of deaths are people over 70, some younger patients have a prolonged course of illness, and can be here for weeks.”

Prof. Dror Mevorach of Jerusalem’s Hadassah Medical Center (courtesy of of Hadassah Medical Center)

Prof. Mevorach said the assumption among some in the public that those who are dying weren’t long for this world at any rate was wrong. “It’s not like the people dying had two or three months to live [anyway] — many are people who had good a prognosis [before infection] and died.”

Israel’s latest figure on infections per capita compares starkly to its own record for previous months, including April, when the first wave was at its height. Then, the number of new daily cases per million citizens was at 20.

Israel was seen at the time as one of the success stories in handling the pandemic, having taken severe steps early and quickly to curb infections.

Even in July an August, when infections were moving up, the numbers were at 170 per million and 166 per million respectively.

What a difference a few weeks make.

“The opening of schools was clearly the trigger for these statistics,” said Eran Segal, one of Israel’s top COVID-19 statisticians. He noted that the ultra-Orthodox sector started studies in August and mainstream education began on September 1, despite warnings from experts, who argued either that most schools nationally should stay shut, or at that least those in the worst-affected areas should. 

Eran Segal (courtesy of Eran Segal)

Segal, a computational biologist at the Weizmann Institute of Science, told The Times of Israel he thinks the numbers provide a cautionary tale to the world. “There’s something to be learned from what happened here,” he said.

Mevorach said he had expected to see the situation in Israel deteriorate.

“Unfortunately I’m not surprised, I predicted this a month ago,” he said. “The problem is that the government did not react to clear signs seen in July and magnified in early September.”

He thinks that the exceedingly high figures of the last week partly reflect the breaking of rules during Rosh Hashanah, including with synagogue prayers at some congregations being larger than the permitted size.

But Mevorach added that the stage had truly been set during the calm between the first and second waves, with people who took part in large gatherings, especially weddings in the Arab and ultra-Orthodox communities, carrying a significant share of the responsibility.

“It’s very simple,” he said. “People in Israel in June, July and August made several mistakes, gathering in weddings and synagogues in a way that’s incompatible with capping the virus. In one day, there were 200 marriages in the Arab population, and each one involved hugging and kissing.”

Segal said the warning signs were there — and ignored — when Israel decided to open schools.

“We were saying then that numbers were stable and high, and everyone said we need to get them down, but instead we took actions like opening schools,” he commented. And as in other countries, the spread in the young population eventually reaches older populations.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report

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