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Rising virus transmission could halt exit, derail store reopening, says expert

Israel’s beleaguered customer-facing businesses are banking on reopening November 15, but their hopes could be dashed by resurgent infections

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

Business owners protest against the ongoing nationwide closure in Tel Aviv on October 15, 2020. (Flash90)
Business owners protest against the ongoing nationwide closure in Tel Aviv on October 15, 2020. (Flash90)

As many Israeli businesses anxiously wait for the next easing of COVID-19 restrictions, a leading virus statistician says it may not happen because of disappointing figures.

“There’s a concern that the country won’t be at the levels set for moving on to the next stage,” Eran Segal, a computational biologist from the Weizmann Institute of Science whose predictions are keenly followed by politicians, told The Times of Israel on Wednesday.

Stage three of the reopening, intended to jump-start the large part of Israel’s commercial sector that is still shut, is expected in a week and a half.

There is fury among business owners about the financial damage the lockdown is causing them, and what many consider inadequate government help. There have been angry protests, and even scenes of shopkeepers throwing merchandise into the street and setting it alight. Stores are expecting to start operating again on November 15, the government’s anticipated date for reopening.

But Segal said that the transmission rate for the virus, meaning the number of people who are infected on average by each coronavirus carrier, is on the rise, and could halt those plans in their tracks.

Eran Segal (courtesy of Eran Segal)

His warning came two days after Meir Ben-Shabbat, head of the National Security Council, reportedly told the coronavirus cabinet that the current transmission rate “should worry us.”

On October 15, the coronavirus cabinet decided that Israel’s lockdown exit should only start if the transmission rate is under 0.8, and just after initial easing of restrictions started in mid-October, it was 0.65.

Segal reported that it now stands at 0.86, and said it is widely understood among experts that the government won’t move forward with reopening unless it slips back under 0.8.

This means not only reversing its upwards trend, but doing so precisely at the time that virus cases resulting from the opening of elementary schools on Sunday will start to show in statistics, he said.

“It’s important to remember that first to fourth grades just reopened, and we’re not yet seeing the effect of that on case numbers,” he said.

Segal said that as well as facing an uphill struggle to hit the target production rate, Israel could also struggle to meet another target ministers are believed to have for the further easing of restrictions, namely, fewer than 500 new daily cases.

Medical staff members work at the coronavirus ward of the Kaplan Medical Center, in Rehovot, on September 22, 2020 (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

The count of new daily cases in Israel has dropped dramatically since the lockdown began, and instead of topping the global table (calculated per capita), as it did by a long stretch, Israel is now at number 16. Segal said that the average of new daily cases seen in recent days — 600 to 700 — reflects improvement, but not fast enough.

Nadav Katz, a statistics expert and physicist from Hebrew University’s interdisciplinary pandemic modeling team, was more optimistic. “As long as the case numbers are still going down this is a good sign,” he said.

Katz said that when case numbers are at their height, the national statistics give a good indication of the situation, but when the overall case number has declined, they need to be treated far more cautiously.

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

He said this is because changes in the transmission rate, or a disappointing shift in the count of new cases over a few days, may say nothing of the country as a whole but just of local outbreaks in a relatively small number of towns or villages.

“We shouldn’t rush to say the whole country is burning, but rather look for where the problem is,” Katz said.

He believes that the government should — and will — exercise discretion if Israel narrowly misses national targets set for reopening and it’s clear that numbers have been pushed up by localized outbreaks.

This would require pinpointed restrictions in the badly affected areas. This may prove contentious, as almost all of the worst-affected areas are currently Arab or Druze and some politicians say rules that affect just one or two segments in society can leave residents feeling singled out, but Katz thinks they will nonetheless be deployed.

“It’s becoming more clear that you have to pay attention to where the hotspots are,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense to hold back the whole country because of outbreaks in particular areas.”

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