Health official: Lockdown helping reduce morbidity, but not enough to ease rules

Sharon Elrai says 40% of Israelis live in ‘red’ areas with high infection rates; ministry director: Hospitals aren’t collapsing, Israel not seeking herd immunity

An empty road in Tel Aviv on October 8, 2020, during a nationwide coronavirus lockdown. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
An empty road in Tel Aviv on October 8, 2020, during a nationwide coronavirus lockdown. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

A senior Health Ministry official said Thursday that the ongoing coronavirus lockdown has helped to curb the spread of COVID-19, but cautioned that large swaths of the country are still seeing high rates of infection.

“This means these restrictions are helping,” Sharon Elrai, acting head of the ministry’s public health services division, said during a press conference.

Elrai displayed a chart showing the percentage of Israelis living in “red” areas with the highest levels of infection. After peaking at 65 percent on September 28, she said there has been a “gradual decline” in the rate, which is now at 40%.

“This isn’t good enough. We need to drop more before we can loosen the restrictions,” Elrai said. “But there’s no doubt we see from this that [the lockdown] is working.”

She said the Health Ministry was working with other government ministries to draft a strategy for reopening the country, which she insisted would be “slow” and “gradual” and based on declining infection levels. Elrai also said morbidity rates were headed “in the right direction.”

Health Ministry Director-General Chezy Levy, left, and Sharon Elrai, acting head of the public health services division, at a press conference about the coronavirus on October 8, 2020. (Eyal Basson/Health Ministry)

Speaking before Elrai, Health Ministry Director-General Chezy Levy said the elevated infection rates have placed “great stress” on hospitals, but insisted they are able to cope with the influx.

“The health system is not collapsing. The health system is heroic — in the community and in hospitals,” Levy said.

He implored the public to adhere to health guidelines and avoid all gatherings, while rejecting the possibility that Israel will seek to achieve herd immunity in its fight against COVID-19.

“Herd immunity requires many illnesses and deaths. We will not go down that road,” he said.

During the press conference, Levy and Elrai were asked about the results of a nationwide serological survey conducted by the Health Ministry from July to September showing that 5.5 percent of Israelis have coronavirus antibodies, indicating that the country is far from achieving so-called “herd immunity” from the pandemic.

“We’re way above 5.5%,” Elrai said, acknowledging that the recent spike in infections meant the serological survey’s results were outdated. “In a rough estimate, we’re definitely not above 20%.”

“We’re very far from [herd immunity] and it’s not advisable to hang our hopes on this solution,” she added.

The study released Thursday indicated that the virus was far more widespread than known, but fell short of assessments that had predicted the pathogen had gone undetected in the vast majority of cases.

An Israeli laboratory worker conducts serological tests for coronavirus at the Leumit Health Care Services laboratory in Or Yehuda, near Tel Aviv on June 29, 2020. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)

Also Thursday, Health Ministry data confirmed a slowdown in the rate of coronavirus infection spread across the country, with the percentage of positive test results being at its lowest point in weeks.

Of the 46,393 virus tests completed on Wednesday, just 8.9 percent were positive, the lowest number seen since September 16.

The results appeared to indicate that a three-week lockdown was having the intended effect of bringing the country’s infection rate under control, despite widespread refusal in some communities to conform with rules forbidding gatherings. Officials have said the numbers are cause for “cautious optimism,” but maintain that the lockdown will remain in place until at least mid-October out of fears the trend may reverse.

Israel has seen the share of tests coming back positive slacken steadily since spiking to over 15% in the last days of September.

The positivity rate is seen as a key metric for measuring the spread of the virus, given uneven day-to-day total testing numbers.

A hospital worker takes a swab to test for the coronavirus outside Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, on October 8, 2020. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

While the number of new infections and positive test rates has dropped since a record 9,053 cases were recorded last Wednesday, so too has the number of daily tests, likely due to the holiday period. Testing numbers often fall off considerably on weekends and on holidays.

The Health Ministry said in its Thursday night roundup that 2,960 new cases of the virus had been recorded since midnight, bringing the total number of confirmed cases in the country to 285,336. Of the 61,899 active carriers, there were 865 serious cases in hospitals, including 244 on ventilators, and 321 patients in moderate condition. The remaining cases were showing light or no symptoms. The death toll was 1,864, having grown by 46 since the previous evening.

The current lockdown, Israel’s second since the pandemic started, began on September 18 before Rosh Hashanah and was tightened a week later. It is currently set to end on October 14.

It has been marked by clashes between police and ultra-Orthodox protesters, as well as between police and anti-government protesters who are calling for Netanyahu’s resignation due to his ongoing corruption trial and the government’s handling of the virus outbreak.

Ministers are scheduled to meet Tuesday to discuss either easing some of the restrictions or extending the measures. The meeting had been set for Monday but the date was set back by one day, drawing anger from some lawmakers, who are pushing for a swift reopening of the economy.

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