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IDF Home Front Command to test kids for COVID antibodies ahead of school year

Military will lead efforts after plans stall for serological testing at schools; vaccinations for pupils on school grounds still up in the air

A Magen David Adom worker takes  blood for a serological test for COVID-19 from a child in the ultra-Orthodox town of Kiryat Ye'arim (Telz-Stone), outside Jerusalem, on August 9, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
A Magen David Adom worker takes blood for a serological test for COVID-19 from a child in the ultra-Orthodox town of Kiryat Ye'arim (Telz-Stone), outside Jerusalem, on August 9, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Israel Defense Forces Home Front Command will assist the Health Ministry in carrying out serological testing for coronavirus antibodies that could allow students to obtain quarantine exemptions if exposed to an infected classmate, a senior officer in the Home Front Command said Thursday.

The testing is being carried out ahead of the beginning of the school year under a program designed to reduce the need for home isolation among students and allow them to remain in class. Those who are found to have COVID antibodies will be exempt from quarantine if a classmate tests positive for the coronavirus.

So far the military has begun testing in four cities with high ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, populations as their schools opened earlier this week, with the start of the Jewish month of Elul. This will expand to the rest of the country in the coming weeks before the rest of Israel’s schools open on September 1, the senior Home Front Command officer told reporters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

According to IDF figures, nearly a fifth of the children who have been tested so far carried coronavirus antibodies, though in some areas it is even higher, with over 34% of children in certain parts of Beit Shemesh testing positive for antibodies, indicating that infection rates in those areas were likely higher than initially suspected.

On Wednesday, Channel 12 news reported that the Health Ministry had told the Bnei Brak municipality that serological testing will not be permitted to take place during school hours and can only be carried out in the presence of a parent.

Requiring a parent to be physically present for the test reduces the likelihood of children undergoing the test, especially in the Haredi community, where families typically have many children.

But the officer said parents have been surprisingly receptive to these serological tests, which require a blood sample.

The disputes over serological testing came as plans to carry out vaccinations in schools also faced obstacles.

A Magen David Adom worker takes blood for a serological test for COVID-19 from an child in the ultra-Orthodox town of Kiryat Ye’arim (Telz-Stone), outside Jerusalem, on August 9, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton has courted controversy by calling the idea of vaccinating students in schools a “crime.”

Last month she was rebuked by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett for feuding with health officials, and as chairwoman of the Knesset’s Coronavirus Committee during the last government, she struck down several virus restrictions passed by the cabinet.

The director-general of her ministry, Yigal Slovik, said Monday that inoculations could be carried out in school, though not during school hours.

“We are in favor of vaccines and we will allow vaccines within schools; we have no problem with that,” Slovik told Radio 103. “But it is not right to engage with vaccinations during school hours as students return [to the classroom] after a really difficult year emotionally, socially and pedagogically.

“Anyone who wants to use the infrastructure of the schools to vaccinate people can do so. But the role of school principals and teachers is to engage in education, not vaccines,” Slovik said.

The serological testing is being rolled out first in the Haredi community, which reopened its schools on Monday. It is slated to be expanded to the general population ahead of the national school year opening scheduled for September 1.

Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton attends New Hope faction meeting, at the Knesset on August 2 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

According to initial results of the testing carried out on Monday on more than 1,000 children in the predominantly ultra-Orthodox cities of Elad, Bnei Brak, Modiin Illit, Beitar Illit and parts of Beit Shemesh, 21 percent of those aged 3-12 were found to have COVID antibodies in their blood, Channel 12 reported. Only Israelis over age 12 are currently eligible to receive the COVID vaccine.

According to the Ynet news site, in Elad, 24.2% of those tested were found to have antibodies; 17% were positive in Modiin Illit and 11% in Kiryat Yearim, also known as Telz Stone.

According to Health Ministry statistics, close to 10% of all Israelis have tested positive for COVID-19 so far since the beginning of the outbreak. About 140,000 of those more than 900,000 total confirmed cases were among children under age 10, though there are more than 1.7 million children aged 9 and under in Israel.

“At the moment there is very high responsiveness” to the testing, Dr. Itai Pessach, director of the children’s hospital at the Sheba Medical Center, told Ynet at a test site in Elad on Monday.

“The parents understand that a Green Pass allows their children to have regular classes, without quarantine, and that’s why the demand is very, very high,” he said.

The ultra-Orthodox community in Israel was hit disproportionately hard throughout much of the pandemic, with critics charging that outbreaks were often driven by a lack of adherence to coronavirus regulations in some Haredi communities.

On Sunday, Bennett approved a plan prepared by the education, health and defense ministries and the Prime Minister’s Office for reopening the next school year.

A healthcare worker takes a coronavirus test sample at the Magen David Adom headquarters in Jerusalem, on August 11, 2021 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Under the plan, all 1.6 million kids in kindergarten and grades 1-6 will undergo a serology test to check if they have COVID-19 antibodies. Those who are found to have recovered from the disease will receive a Green Pass that exempts them from quarantine if they are exposed to confirmed carriers.

If a student tests positive for COVID-19, that student will enter quarantine, and their entire class will be required to get tested for the virus. Those who test positive will also enter quarantine, and those who test negative can stay in class as long as they get tested every day for seven days. Those who refuse to be tested daily will have to enter quarantine as is currently required.

Students in schools in cities and towns that are considered “orange” or “red” under the traffic light system will all be tested once a week as standard.

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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