Government COVID experts push strategy rethink as infections spread

Panel tells lawmakers to limit indoor gatherings to 300 people, also urges them to start making policies based on total case numbers and not just hospitalization rates

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel.

Medical staff wear safety gear as they work in the coronavirus ward of Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem on September 23, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Medical staff wear safety gear as they work in the coronavirus ward of Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem on September 23, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The government’s coronavirus advisory panel has urged cabinet ministers to change course and enact new restrictions on gatherings, warning that current policies are doing little to curb a prolonged surge of new infections.

During a meeting Thursday evening, the panel of experts reportedly urged government officials to adopt an overall change in their approach to fighting COVID, which until now has largely sought to avoid the heavy restrictions seen under the last government.

“It is unreasonable to continue on the current course,” one expert said, according to the Kan public broadcaster. Other advisers were quoted by Channel 12 news as saying that the vaccination campaign pushed by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz has not done enough yet to curb rising cases, “and a change in policy is needed for the interim period until there is a significant and consistent decrease in serious cases.”

The advisers reportedly told government ministers that “the extent of rising morbidity over the past month has extracted a heavy human toll.”

Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in Israel, 7,602 people have succumbed to the disease. Over the past month, 23 people with coronavirus have died on average per day in Israel. Since the start of September, more than 550 Israelis have died with the virus.

The experts reportedly told members of the coronavirus cabinet that the current approach — of making decisions based on only the number of series cases — is “dangerous,” and that adopting restrictions at an earlier stage “is the correct choice for the future in light of the lessons learned so far from the fourth wave.”

The panel also suggested specific moves to help curb the infection numbers, including limiting indoor gatherings to 300 people and making sure the Green Pass vaccine passport program requires a booster shot.

As of Thursday afternoon, there were 65,719 confirmed active coronavirus cases in the country, with 1,035 of them hospitalized, 713 of those in serious condition and 202 on ventilators. While serious cases had dipped to 645 a week ago, they have risen over the past week, and topped 743 on Wednesday.

Despite Israel’s high vaccination rates, the positivity rate has remained above 5% for more than a month, after staying below 2% from March through July. On Wednesday, 5,984 Israelis tested positive for COVID-19 — 5.65% of all those tested.

Healthcare workers take COVID-19 test samples of Israelis at a Maccabi healthcare test center in Modiin, on September 13, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Vaccination rates have dipped considerably over the holiday period, beginning with Rosh Hashanah two weeks ago, but experts believe they will pick up again once children return to school and adults return to work next week.

While the government under former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu enacted three strict lockdowns throughout COVID, Bennett has largely avoided any major restrictions and urged the continuation of daily activities alongside vaccinations and mask-wearing. But health experts — including Health Ministry director-general Nachman Ash — are reportedly pushing for a change in course to the government’s approach, arguing that it has not done enough to curb cases.

The majority of new cases each day are among school-age children, most of whom are not vaccinated against COVID-19. As of Thursday morning, 36,822 of the active COVID cases were among school-age children, making up more than 56% of all current cases. Another 90,000 students were in mandatory quarantine after exposure to a COVID patient.

On Thursday morning, the Health Ministry formally instructed principals to bar teachers who are unvaccinated and refuse to submit to regular testing from entering classrooms. The new regulation, which will take effect on October 3, will also prevent such teachers from being paid and ban them from teaching remotely.

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