A military task force advising the Health Ministry cautioned Tuesday that coronavirus infection may be on the rise again, even after a month of lockdown, as a health official said the current closure may not be Israel’s last.
“Morbidity is continuing at very high rates, and it is possible that it is starting to rise again,” the IDF Military Intelligence Directorate task force wrote in a report. It noted that the weeks of lockdown have yet to cause a drop in the test positivity rate or in the number of serious patients.
The report said the basic reproduction number, or R0 — the average number of people each virus carrier infects — has been on the rise since mid-January after steadily dropping at the beginning of the lockdown, and is at 0.97, approaching 1, above which it indicates the outbreak is worsening.
The officials noted that the average age of serious patients has been going down, likely due to the widespread vaccination campaign of the elderly. Still, the rapid inoculation has yet to cause an actual drop in the number of serious cases.
Channel 12, citing Health Ministry figures, reported that during January there was a steady rise in the number of seriously ill patients aged 20-49. By contrast, among those over the age of 60, who were prioritized to get the vaccine, the numbers rose during the first half of the month, then leveled off and more recently declined slightly.
Uri Shalit, of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, told Channel 12 that a comparison of seriously ill patients above the age of 60 with the younger age group showed that “in cities where there are high vaccination rates, there is a notable decline in the number of elderly people hospitalized in serious condition, while by contrast among those aged 40-60 there is no drop observed.
“The trends differ from the pattern that emerged after the second lockdown, when we saw a drop that began with the younger [patients] and only afterwards moved to the elderly,” he added. “The effect of the vaccine is being felt, but we have still not reached the height of its influence, which will be enough to create a turning point on a national level.”
Sharon Alroy-Preis, head of public health services at the Health Ministry, cautioned that the current lockdown, the country’s third since the start of the pandemic, may not be its last.
“In the coming weeks, we’ll know if there will be a fourth lockdown,” she told the Kan public broadcaster.
In the interview, Alroy-Preis also addressed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s significantly shortened trip next week to the United Arab Emirates, which comes as Ben Gurion International Airport has been largely closed to prevent the import of new virus variants.
“We are in a situation in which we are making an effort not to bring new strains of the coronavirus into [Israel]. I assume the prime minister will have his considerations. There is a professional health opinion paper calling to keep entry and exit from the country to a minimum,” she said.
Alroy-Preis said a more infectious British COVID-19 variant was causing more serious illness among younger Israelis, which hadn’t been seen in large numbers in previous lockdowns.
Gili Regev-Yochay, the director of Sheba Medical Center’s Infectious Disease Epidemiology Unit, called for all parents of young children to get vaccinated ahead of the planned reopening of the education system to prevent the virus from being transmitted from student to student and then to parents.
“Vaccination centers are starting to empty; they need to be opened to everyone,” she told Kan, referring to the current prioritization system that began inoculations for those over 60, medical workers and at-risk populations and has since been steadily dropping the minimum age limit, which is now 35.
She said that to achieve herd immunity with the new mutated strains, at least 80% of the population needs to be immunized, either through vaccination or through recovery from COVID-19.
“We are currently around 25%, which is wonderful, but we are far away,” Regev-Yochay said.
On Monday Regev-Yochay said Israel and the world would have to live in the shadow of the coronavirus for a long time, since herd immunity would likely require vaccinating kids, which currently isn’t possible since they were excluded from vaccine trials.
Health Ministry officials have been warning against a broad reopening of schools, citing sky-high infections among children and arguing that reopening the education system will boost the prevalence of the British virus strain from the current 70% of all new infections to 90%.
Ministers voted in the early hours of Monday morning to extend the nationwide closure until Friday morning at 7 a.m., and to keep Ben Gurion Airport largely closed until Sunday.
Ministers are set to meet Wednesday to discus an exit plan from the current lockdown. Netanyahu met with Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, national coronavirus czar Nachman Ash, and other senior health officials to hear their opinions on the matter, with some warning that a broad easing of the lockdown would be “collective suicide,” Army Radio reported.
Health Ministry officials are eager to see the lockdown extended until after the weekend as that will allow more people to complete the vaccination process by getting the second shot. They also fear that releasing the population over the weekend will lead to social and family gatherings that could cause more infections.
Netanyahu reportedly told the health officials that while he backs their position, he doubted that coalition partners in the Blue and White party would agree to further extend the lockdown.
Though the meeting ended without a decision, there was agreement that some elements of the education system will be permitted to reopen.
The Health Ministry said Tuesday that 8,271 new cases had been confirmed the previous day, with 9.2% of the tests returning a positive result. Total cases in the country reached 656,016, including 71,331 active cases.
Serious cases were at 1,143, with 409 in critical condition and 326 on ventilators. The death toll went up by 47 to 4,863.
The data showed 3,165,545 Israelis have gotten the first vaccine dose, with 1,824,750 of them also getting the second shot. Israel so far leads the world by far in its vaccination campaign per capita.
If the virus variants keep mutating and become immune to the current vaccines, an additional, third dose may be needed in the future to inoculate against those strains, coronavirus czar Ash said Monday in a press briefing. He noted that the option wasn’t relevant in the immediate future, but could be considered later.