Number of COVID patients on ventilators hits highest level since March

But Hebrew University research predicts new cases and serious illness will drop next month, amid concern over availability of health resources

A coronavirus ward at Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem on September 23, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
A coronavirus ward at Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem on September 23, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The number of coronavirus patients being treated on ventilators rose above 200 for the first time since late March, Health Ministry figures released Friday showed, though researchers said the Delta variant-driven wave of fresh infections may be reined in soon.

The Health Ministry’s website showed 203 people with the coronavirus were on ventilators, out of 274 patients listed in critical condition Friday morning, while a separate ministry statement put the number of patients on ventilators at 206. The number of patients listed in serious condition, which includes those deemed critical, dropped slightly from a day earlier, but remained above 700.

The last time Israel had over 200 patients on ventilators was March 31, when 202 people were hooked up to breathing machines. That came at the tail end of a wave of infections that saw a record 358 people on ventilators on January 25.

While Israel’s fourth wave of infections has seen record numbers of daily cases, the number of patients needing hospitalization has remained relatively low compared to previous bouts, which experts attribute to the country’s high vaccination rates.

Ministry figures showed 6,314 new infections on Thursday, continuing a slow downward trend, with the number of active cases sinking slightly to 65,432.

The death toll since the start of the pandemic rose to 7,611. A total of 529 people have succumbed to the virus since the start of the month, making September the second straight month that Israel has recorded at least 500 deaths, after August saw 609 deaths attributed to COVID-19.

The vast majority of both new infections and serious cases have been among those who are not vaccinated. According to the ministry, 493 of those in serious condition were unvaccinated, compared with 134 patients who were vaccinated with two doses, and 55 patients who received a third dose of the coronavirus vaccine.

Israeli officials say the country is not in danger of running out of ventilators, but some have raised alarms over the lack of ECMO machines available for the sickest patients. Forty-one of the country’s 49 ECMOs were in use Friday morning, the Kan broadcaster reported, all but six of them by unvaccinated individuals.

Unlike ventilators that just assist breathing, extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) machines provide cardiac and respiratory assistance by oxygenating a patient’s blood outside of the body and are used for the most critically ill.

An ECMO machine in the coronavirus ward at Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem on September 23, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prof. Galia Rahav, the head of the infectious diseases unit at Sheba Medical Center near Tel Aviv, indicated to Army Radio that intensive care units were beginning to ration treatment.

“We’re at the stage where we need to decide who will get a spot in intensive care and who won’t, and according to the priority list, the unvaccinated will get a bed. They will also get Regeneron first. That’s not fair,” she said.

But she also aimed fire at the government for refusing to place new restrictions on gatherings, contending that many of those in intensive care units had been infected at mass-attended events.

“It’s depressing. They don’t care about us. We’re on the front lines, but they are not taking our advice.”

A newly opened Maccabi coronavirus testing site in the central city of Modiin, on September 13, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Government officials have pointed to the relatively low hospitalization rates and have pursued a policy of keeping restrictions to a minimum while heartily pushing vaccinations, including being the first country in the world to offer booster shots to nearly the entire general population.

However, unlike previous waves of the virus in Israel, which have been marked by sharp rises followed by sharp drops, the current fourth wave has stubbornly remained on a plateau, which many experts have blamed on those who are unvaccinated or who no longer benefit from immunity proffered by the first two doses.

On Thursday, a panel of government experts reportedly urged ministers to rethink basing policies on numbers of serious cases and not total cases and called for further restrictions on gatherings.

However, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has seemingly rejected the suggestions, Army Radio reported. The premier noted that events were already restricted by the Green Pass vaccine passport, which will require a booster dose starting October 3.

Bennett was backed by a Hebrew University study presented at the meeting which predicted that numbers of new cases will fall over the next 10 days, followed by a drop in the number of serious cases, as the new Green Pass fiat goes into effect.

Naftali Bennett, now Israel’s prime minister, pictured in the ultra-Orthodox town of Elad, September 6, 2020 (Flash90)

The researchers said the number of serious cases will rise before then, but only as a knock-on effect of higher survivability among patients needing prolonged stays in the hospital.

Researchers also contended that placing capacity limits on events where entry is already restricted to those who are vaccinated or have recovered from the virus would have little additional benefit.

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