Imperative to 'aggressively quarantine at-risk populations'

Research predicts Israel could see 1,000 serious COVID-19 cases by Passover

‘It’s a wake-up call, and we have to listen to it,’ says Nadav Katz of Hebrew University, whose study indicates the lockdown is failing to protect the elderly

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

Illustrative: Magen David Adom workers transferring a woman at Hadassah Ein Karem hospital, in Jerusalem, on March 22, 2020. (Flash90)
Illustrative: Magen David Adom workers transferring a woman at Hadassah Ein Karem hospital, in Jerusalem, on March 22, 2020. (Flash90)

Israel will have 500 seriously ill coronavirus patients by the first day of Passover, April 9, and five days later the number will stand at 1,000, an influential Hebrew University research team has predicted.

“We will be surprised if we end up with less than low thousands of dead,” said Nadav Katz of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Racah Institute of Physics. “That’s already looking like an optimistic scenario.”

If Israel doesn’t take further strong steps, he said, “we could end up like Spain and Italy and other countries that missed out on opportunities.”

Israel saw its first coronavirus death on March 20, and since then the death count has risen to 18. The number of seriously ill patients stands at 83, and there have been 4,831 total cases.

Katz released his projection on Tuesday, soon after Health Ministry director general Moshe Bar Siman-Tov said: “Unfortunately I still think the reality we will have to deal with will be thousands of dead.”

Prof. Nadav Katz at the Hebrew University’s Quantum Information Science Center. (Yitz Woolf for the Hebrew University/Courtesy)

Doctors have been hoping that various factors, especially Israel’s young population compared to other nations, will mean that even as the number of infected people rises, relatively few will die or end up in serious condition.

But Katz, director of Hebrew University’s Quantum Information Science Center, said this isn’t happening, and that until now, restrictions on the population haven’t had the desired effect on the ratio of critical patients. One of the major problems, he said, is that lockdown restrictions “have not been effective enough in protecting at-risk people, including the elderly.”

He acknowledged that the rate of newly confirmed cases has slowed since last Wednesday, but said that Israel needs to be focused on how badly stricken patients are, not just on the overall number of people diagnosed.

Katz observed that the number of serious cases is growing at a similar rate to the overall number of patients, albeit with a 12-day delay. Government restrictions are failing to stop this from happening, he said.

“It’s a wake-up call, and we have to listen to it,” Katz said.

A chart by Nadav Katz of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s physics department, showing an analysis and projection of the number of seriously ill Israeli coronavirus patients, March 31, 2020. (Courtesy)

His analysis contrasts with that of Cyrille Cohen, head of the immunotherapy laboratory at Bar-Ilan University, who told The Times of Israel on Monday that he was encouraged by what he considers a low proportion of coronavirus patients who are dying or in serious condition.

Katz said that Israel can avoid a sharp increase in the number of deaths and serious cases. He said that even the scenario of 1,000 seriously ill patients by April 14 can be averted, because this figure would reflect people who aren’t yet infected, and who could be protected by better measures. The most effective change, he said, would be moves to “aggressively quarantine at-risk populations.”

At the start of the outbreak, Katz’s institute prepared projections that were discussed in government meetings, raising the possibility of 10,000 to 40,000 deaths from the coronavirus, depending on the effectiveness of measures to combat the virus. He said that he is now more optimistic, but finds it hard to predict how effective the current restrictions on the population will prove.

“When the government says you’re only allowed to have two people gathering and that people must stay 100 meters from home, it’s very difficult to translate this into infection rates,” he said. “The ‘business-as-usual’ infection rates are easy to calculate but we can’t predict impact of measures.”

Katz declined to give an updated projection on the likely death toll beyond saying it he expects it to be at least in the “low thousands.” Asked how many Israelis are likely to become infected, he predicted more than one percent of the population — suggesting that any lower estimate was “not very realistic” — but said it was “definitely possible” to keep the percentage in single figures.

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