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Palestinians see few serious coronavirus cases, but infections expected to rise soon

As COVID spikes in Israel, reported infections and hospitalizations low in West Bank and Gaza, although little testing being done

Palestinian health workers at a hospital in the West Bank town of Nablus, where health workers were vaccinated against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), after the delivery of vaccine doses from Israel. February 3, 2021. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)
Palestinian health workers at a hospital in the West Bank town of Nablus, where health workers were vaccinated against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), after the delivery of vaccine doses from Israel. February 3, 2021. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

As the super-contagious Omicron coronavirus variant spikes in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza have yet to see a dramatic rise in cases — at least on paper.

While anecdotal reports of coronavirus cases fly back and forth, Palestinian health officials say that hospitalizations for serious infections have remained low.

“The emergency wards that we opened are now empty. We have fewer than 100 hospitalizations and around 15 patients on ventilators,” said Osama al-Najjar, an official in the Palestinian Authority Health Ministry in Ramallah.

Almost no testing is being done in either the West Bank or Gaza, where around 4.5 million Palestinians live. Over the past week, Gaza has had between 700 to 1,400 tests run per day. The West Bank is not much better, with around 6,000 daily tests conducted on average, al-Najjar said.

The rate of tests coming back positive — a key indicator of hidden cases — has steadily crept up, however. Health officials say they expect recorded infections to rise over the next few weeks.

“There may be a ‘delay’ in the virus reaching us compared to what we see inside [Israel]. But if a few weeks ago, the rate of tests coming back positive was very low, now we’re seeing the rate of positive tests reach 10 or 11 percent – evidence that there really is spread,” said senior Gaza health official Majdi Dheir.

“Over the next two weeks, as Omicron becomes the dominant strain in Palestine, we expect to see a serious rise in cases,” al-Najjar said.

Palestinians receive the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in the West Bank city of Hebron, on March 27, 2021. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

Around 4,628 Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza currently have the virus, according to official PA figures. At the peak of the previous wave, caused by the Delta strain, some 34,000 Palestinians were infected.

In an attempt to tamp down the rapidly spreading virus, Israel has expanded testing to include rapid antigen tests by first responders. Palestinian officials exclusively use lab tests, widely known by the acronym PCR.

“It’s quite possible that there are large parts of Palestinian society that are infected, but not diagnosed and that never get tested,” al-Najjar said.

For the 120,000-odd West Bank Palestinians who hold permits to work in Israel and Israeli settlements, there is another consideration: losing days at work should they test positive.

“If Palestinians who work in Israel sign up for a test and turn up positive, they won’t be allowed to enter Israel, so they don’t get tested,” al-Najjar said.

Serious coronavirus cases in the West Bank and Gaza have also remained relatively low, despite limited vaccination.

For months, Palestinians struggled to cobble together enough doses to inoculate their population. The Palestinian Authority gathered vaccines from the United States, Russia, and China, as well as through COVAX, a United Nations-backed initiative to provide shots to poor countries. Israel also vaccinated most Palestinians who worked inside Israel.

Palestinian Authority employees sign in West Bank Palestinians to be vaccinated against the coronavirus on March 21, 2021. (WAFA)

Most West Bank Palestinians have now received at least one shot of a coronavirus vaccine, according to official figures. In Gaza, there are now hundreds of thousands of doses available. But only 47% of those over 16 have received at least one shot, according to Dheir.

“The anti-vaccine propaganda and fake news on social media, claiming that coronavirus is a conspiracy…These rumors and misinformation have had a severe impact,” said Dheir.

Gaza has been blockaded by both Israel and Egypt for a decade and a half. Israel says the tight restrictions on the movement of goods and people are necessary to prevent a greater threat from the Hamas terror group, which rules the enclave.

Rights groups lament the impact of the blockade on ordinary Palestinians. The crowded Strip suffers from outdated, collapsing infrastructure, as well as nearly 50% unemployment.

Gaza’s health care system suffers from a chronic lack of equipment, as Israel blacklists some items as potential security risks. Talented medical staff with the opportunity to leave the enclave for greener pastures often do.

Earlier coronavirus waves struck Gaza hard. The tightly packed cities and sprawling refugee camps left little room for social distancing. Both Gaza doctors and international observers warned that the under-equipped, poorly staffed system could collapse under the strain.

Members of the Palestinian security forces enforce a lockdown following the spread the of the coronavirus, in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on December 18, 2020. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

In a conversation with The Times of Israel in September, officials estimated that Gaza had reached “herd immunity” due to the sheer number of infections.

Dheir sounded an optimistic note about the coming wave. While acknowledging that the new variant would likely infect many Gazans, he argued that the Omicron strain’s relatively mild symptoms boded well for the enclave’s healthcare system.

“I don’t expect that we’ll reach the point of collapse. There will be considerable pressure on the health sector, but it won’t be from a lack of hospital beds – rather, it will be from a lack of medical staff as they are infected and enter quarantine,” he said.

“As we have in the past — we’ll adapt,” Dheir concluded.

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