Most schools should stay closed in fall unless virus halted — ex-gov’t expert

Prof. Eli Waxman says only third grade and younger should be allowed back assuming coronavirus continues to spread; urges Health Ministry to let others take over pandemic fight

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

Israeli students and teachers wear protective face masks as they return to school, at Hashalom School in Mevasseret Zion, near Jerusalem, May 17, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Israeli students and teachers wear protective face masks as they return to school, at Hashalom School in Mevasseret Zion, near Jerusalem, May 17, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel’s schools should mostly stay shut after the summer vacation unless coronavirus infections are radically reduced, a former government adviser said on Tuesday, also warning that the virus fight will “continue to fail” if it isn’t taken out of Health Ministry hands.

“If we don’t get the numbers down to tens we should not open the schools because the risk would be too high,” said Prof. Eli Waxman, former chairman of the National Security Council’s Expert Advisers’ Committee on Combating the Pandemic.

He made his comments in a briefing to journalists on Tuesday morning.

He later told The Times of Israel that an exception should be made for children up to third grade and special education.

“If the prevalence remains as high as it is today — over 1,000 new infected daily — opening schools fully may have the effect of a renewed growth that will get us to 2,000, which will endanger the health care system,” he said.

“Under such conditions, we would recommend opening up only lower grades, up to third, and special needs classes,” he added.

Schools were closed in mid-March, but almost all classes were okayed to return by the second week of May, in a move that some policy experts have blamed for the resurgence of the virus. The government eventually clamped down on high school classes at the end of the school year, but has taken few steps to close or limit schools since then, allowing summer school to continue for lower grades.

Officials have yet to mention the idea of not allowing schools to reopen in the fall, though the prime minister, health minister and others have warned that a full lockdown may be in the cards in the near future.

During the briefing, Waxman said that Israel is currently on a bleak trajectory, with at least 500 patients in intensive care already “unavoidable.”

There are currently 21,393 active coronavirus in Israel, including 524 patients who are hospitalized. A total of 177 people are listed in serious condition, including 55 people hooked up to breathing machines.

His comments came hours after the Health Ministry and Government Coronavirus Information and Knowledge Center confirmed that there had been over 1,680 new confirmed cases on Monday, a record, with the spread of the virus appearing to accelerate since a lull in May.

A Magen David Adom medical worker tests Israelis at a drive-through site to collect samples for coronavirus testing on July 10, 2020. (Chen Leopold/Flash90)CIVICIVweizmann

Waxman, a top physicist at the Weizmann Institute of Science, said he has no faith in the Health Ministry to lead the virus fight. “Leaving the management, as it is, to the Health Ministry will just ensure that we will continue to fail,” he said.

He pointed specifically at the ministry’s contact tracing program, which he termed a “complete failure,” noting that even if numbers were driven down by lockdown measures, the lack of a mechanism to quickly identify new cases and put suspected carriers in quarantine would make a resurgence all-but certain.

The Health Ministry reportedly lacks capacity, and has seen its contact tracing systems overwhelmed in recent days.

“If we reduce the numbers [of infections] today and we don’t build this [tracing] capability, due to the continued resistance of the Health Ministry, when we try to go back to normal activity we will have another outbreak,” Waxman warned.

A Health Ministry spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Eli Waxman, former chairman of the National Security Council’s Expert Advisers’ Committee on Combatting the Pandemic, in an interview on Channel 12 on July 5, 2020. (Channel 12 screenshot)

Before leaving his advisory post in May, Waxman argued to authorities that success hinged on establishing an emergency control center that brings together various state players under the leadership of former military brass, and dilutes the role of the Health Ministry. He believes that this has now become urgent.

“The structure of the Health Ministry is not suited for this,” he said. “And the people that manage the Health Ministry don’t have the capabilities, and they don’t have any relevant experience for managing this crisis.”

Defense Minister Benny Gantz has publicly pushed for the military to have a greater role in dealing with virus. So far, the IDF has mostly been involved in managing isolation hotels and supplying residents in locked down areas with food and other essentials.

Waxman warned that the country is in a worse state than it was during the first wave.

The number of new daily infections pose a “danger to the healthcare system and we are much closer to this than we were in March and April — our margins are much smaller now,” he said.

He added that the public was also less likely to conform to heavy-handed social distancing and hygiene rules after seeing the country’s efforts to nearly totally stomp out the bug squandered.

“I think that the public is becoming more resentful,” he said, “seeing that the government didn’t take the proper actions it had to take during the past few weeks.”

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