Increased child infection rates cast doubt on school reopenings

Education minister reportedly says new strains ‘change the rules of the game’; over 50% of infected students are Haredi

Illustrative: Children wearing face masks study in a classroom of the Kramim school in Jerusalem on their first day back to classes on November 1, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Illustrative: Children wearing face masks study in a classroom of the Kramim school in Jerusalem on their first day back to classes on November 1, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

With infection rates remaining high on Tuesday, and amid reports of increased child morbidity as a result of the British strain of the coronavirus, the imminent reopening of the education system with the easing of the lockdown appeared less likely.

Army Radio reported that Education Minister Yoav Gallant seemed to be walking back his demand that schools and kindergartens be reopened in the first stage of the easing of the lockdown, and was said to be holding further consultations with medical experts.

“The mutations have changed the rules of the game. I do not want to take on anything related to childhood illness,” Gallant reportedly said.

A British variant of the virus that is circulating widely in Israel accounts for nearly half of recent cases, according to health officials. In addition, 27 cases of a South African strain have been found in the country, along with four cases of a California mutation. Officials fear the variants might prove resistant to the vaccines.

Education Minister Yoav Gallant visits schoolchildren on the first day of the school year in Mevo Horon, September 1, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/AFP)

The British government has said that there are preliminary indications that the British strain, widely believed to be far more infectious, may cause 30 percent higher mortality.

Health officials have said that the British strain is causing concerning levels of infection in children and young people, as well as serious illness in a number of pregnant women. Sharon Alroy-Preis, head of public health at the Health Ministry, said on Monday that there was a rise in infections in children aged six to nine, the first age group to return to the classroom after previous lockdowns.

Gallant’s comments came as the Ynet news site reported that although the previous two lockdowns led to a reduction in infection levels among children and young people, the current restrictions have not had the same effect.

The report said that on the eve of the second lockdown on September 18, there were 1,921 students and 247 staff members among the 5,340 new cases of the coronavirus diagnosed that day — around 40 percent of the total. At the end of that lockdown on October 18, 259 children and teens and 36 educational staff members were diagnosed as positive out of 922 new patients diagnosed that day — 32% of those infected.

On January 7, as Israel entered a tightened lockdown with a full closure of the education system, 2,743 students and 350 staff members out of a total of 7,642 were diagnosed, which is also a rate of around 40%, but as of January 21, Ynet said that figure still stood at over 40%.

According to figures presented by Gallant this week during a meeting with local government heads on the potential reopening of the education system, 54% of the students diagnosed with the coronavirus are ultra-Orthodox.

Israeli security forces leave the vicinity of a Jewish Talmudic school which is open in violation of COVID-19 lockdown rules in Ashdod on January 22, 2021. (JACK GUEZ/AFP)

The figures showed that on Sunday there were 10,229 ultra-Orthodox children and teens who were classified as active patients, out of a total of 18,777 students who had the infection.

High infection rates among Haredim are partly due to large family size and environmental factors, but experts also blame rule-breaking in large pockets of the community, often supported by rabbis and other community leaders. A health official said last week that even in the current lockdown, some 15% of Haredi educational institutions were operating.

Israel’s general daily virus caseload also remains high, despite the lockdown and a frantic vaccination drive that has far outpaced the rest of the world.

Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch said Tuesday that the restrictions and vaccination program were not yet having the desired effect on infection rates.

“We are not seeing the decline [in infection] that we wanted to see — yesterday 8,571 new cases were diagnosed, and we are still at over 1,100 critically ill patients,” he told Army Radio. “The big fear is that a strain of the coronavirus will arrive [in Israel] that will be resistant to the vaccine. It worries us a lot.”

A man receives the second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a coronavirus vaccination center in Tel Aviv, Jan. 25, 2021. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said that close to 4 million doses of the vaccine have now been administered in Israel — with around 2.7 million receiving their first dose, of whom 1.26 million have also been vaccinated with a second dose. The government has set a goal of vaccinating the entire adult eligible population over the age of 16 by the end of March.

Health Ministry officials, in a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Monday evening, said that the persistently high infection rate must prevent planned steps to start exiting the national lockdown and reopening the economy, recommending extending the restrictions by another week beyond their current expiration date, to February 7.

The new recommendation came as Israel recorded the highest daily death toll since the start of the pandemic and shuttered Ben Gurion Airport to nearly all flights until the end of January, amid fears over fast-spreading or vaccine-resistant coronavirus variants entering the country.

A woman takes a photo at the deserted departure hall at Israel’s Ben-Gurion International Airport in Lod, near Tel Aviv, on January 25, 2021. (Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP)

International travelers have been identified as a prime source of infections in the country.

The airport closure began midnight and will remain in effect until Sunday, January 31, when the national lockdown measures are set to be eased, unless the government moves to extend the rules further.

Israel has seen over 600,000 virus cases since the start of the pandemic in March and 4,478 deaths, including over 1,000 fatalities this month.

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