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Health official: 'Unprecedented' numbers needing ventilators

Health officials: UK variant running wild, hitting children at a worrying rate

Virus czar says strain now behind half of cases, may cause serious illness 30% more often; public health head: 40% of cases are in kids; Israel must keep airport shut for weeks

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Illustrative: A traveler approaches a medic to be sampled while testing for the COVID-19 coronavirus disease, upon arrival at the rapid testing center in Ben-Gurion International Airport, near Tel Aviv, on January 24, 2021.  (JACK GUEZ / AFP)
Illustrative: A traveler approaches a medic to be sampled while testing for the COVID-19 coronavirus disease, upon arrival at the rapid testing center in Ben-Gurion International Airport, near Tel Aviv, on January 24, 2021. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

The government’s coronavirus czar said Monday that mutated COVID-19 strains brought into the country by returning travelers are hampering efforts to contain the disease outbreak.

Nachman Ash told Radio 103FM that over the past couple of days information from the UK, where the so-called British variant was first detected, has indicated that the strain causes serious symptoms at a 30 percent higher rate.

The British government has said there are preliminary indications the strain may cause 30% higher mortality.

Ash said officials estimate some 40-50 percent of new daily cases are caused by the British variant.

Two other variants of the virus, from South Africa and California, have also been detected in Israel.

The mutations “are setting us back in dealing with the disease,” Ash said, forcing the country into a longer lockdown as well as leading to an approaching closure of Ben Gurion Airport.

Meanwhile, Sharon Alroy-Preis, head of public health at the Health Ministry, told the Knesset that the planned week-long closure of Ben Gurion Airport would not be long enough.

“The six days that we have decided to close Ben Gurion Airport for will not be enough. We will have to extend the closure by at least a few weeks to buy time for the vaccination campaign,” Alroy-Preis said.

Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis. (Courtesy)

The official also said that a higher than average percentage of cases in the ultra-Orthodox community were caused by the highly contagious British strain of the virus, and that although the mutation was not generally seen in Arab communities,  it was expected to spread there too.

Additionally, the strain was causing concerning levels of infection in children and young people, as well as serious illness in a number of pregnant women.

She said that “40% of illness is in children, a higher percentage than their part in the population… We see a rise in infections in ages 6-9, which is exactly the age group that is supposed to go back to school” when the tightened lockdown ends at the end of the month. “We’re monitoring it.”

She added that “the vaccine works against the British mutation but the virus infection rate is much faster than the vaccine rate.”

Meanwhile, “we are at a record number of people on ventilators, it’s unprecedented.”

The Health Ministry released figures Monday showing that 4,868 new virus cases were diagnosed on Sunday and that the positive test rate confirming infection had risen to 9.3%, its second-highest level in a month.

With no deaths overnight, the toll stood at 4,419. Of the 70,836 active cases, 1,140 were in serious condition, with 416 considered critical and 369 on ventilators.

Rejecting suggestions that the virus outbreak was out of control, Ash nevertheless admitted that containing the pandemic had become more complicated due to the mutations.

Israel’s coronavirus czar Prof. Nachman Ash visits the Ziv hospital in Safed, December 24, 2020 (David Cohen/Flash90)

“We are taking the right action to deal with the disease,” he insisted.

Over 1,000 people have died of COVID-19 since the beginning of January.

“We have had a difficult month, and the morbidity is still at its peak, we have a high number of patients in serious condition in the hospitals and the number of daily deaths is accordingly high,” Ash said.

“But the number of verified [cases] has been declining in recent days, the basic reproduction number of infection has dropped below 1, which indicates that the disease is in remission,” he said.

Changes in the number of seriously ill “are always lagging behind by a few days, and we are waiting every day for a decrease [in those numbers],” Ash said.

He said there was a very high probability that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine that Israel is using for its mass immunization drive also works on the British variant, but it is still not clear how effective it is against other variants.

Nonetheless, he noted, the vaccine should be expected to have at least some effectiveness against the mutations, even if it is not as high as its effectiveness against the more common strains.

An Israeli student receives a COVID-19 vaccine injection, at a vaccination center in Tel Aviv, on January 23, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Ash wouldn’t pledge that the country will be released from an ongoing tightened lockdown — already in its third week — at the end of the month as planned.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein reported Monday that the vaccination program was close to a rate of nearly 200,000 shots every day. Edelstein tweeted figures showing that 193,000 doses were administered on Sunday, a marked increase over the daily average of 170,000 shots for last week.

“Israel is continuing to lead the world with 3.7 million vaccinations (2.590 million got the first dose, and among them more than a million have also received the second dose) and we are opening the week with about 200,000 vaccination a day,” Edelstein tweeted.

“This is the way to beat the virus!” he said.

The government has set a goal of vaccinating the entire adult eligible population over the age of 16 by the end of March.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein speaks during a press conference at Airport City, outside Tel Aviv, on September 17, 2020. (Flash90)

The statistics came as the country prepared to take drastic action to block virus mutations reaching the country from abroad, with the government deciding to shut down all commercial flights in and out of Ben Gurion Airport, Israel’s main international airport.

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

The closure will start at midnight Monday-Tuesday and remain in effect until Sunday, January 31, when national lockdown measures are currently set to be eased.

Under the lockdown orders all nonessential businesses are closed as well as the entire education system, with the exception of special education institutions.

The Health Ministry is reportedly pushing for the lockdown to be extended in a partial format and that only preschools be permitted to reopen at the beginning of next month.

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