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Virus czar denies Israel pursuing herd immunity through mass infection

Salman Zarka warns the Delta variant still putting people in hospital; admits less-than-robust restrictions won’t help, so no need for them

Coronavirus czar Prof. Salman Zarka seen during a visit at a Safed hospital on August 24, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)
Coronavirus czar Prof. Salman Zarka seen during a visit at a Safed hospital on August 24, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Coronavirus czar Salman Zarka rejected growing speculation that the government was aiming for a policy of herd immunity, maintaining on Monday that hopes that the weaker Omicron strain would quickly burn through the population without overwhelming the hospital system were scientifically invalid.

Zarka, who spearheads the state’s response to the crisis, also said a “green classroom” program that had allowed exposed students to remain in school would be scrapped, and urged Israelis to do what they could to avoid infection, warning that hospitals were at risk of being overwhelmed by a cocktail of coronavirus variants and the seasonal flu.

“We have no policy of mass infection. Herd immunity has no scientific basis,” Zarka told a press briefing. “We are currently facing a combined wave, with the Delta variant still active, and quite a few hospitalized patients are suffering from it.”

He added that the health care system was being stretched by the flu and that Omicron cases would continue to rise. “We can’t prevent the virus from spreading, [but] we’re working to lower morbidity to protect people, especially those at risk.”

His comments came a day after Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speculated that Israel might reach 50,000 daily cases, due to the inability to stop the spread of the Omicron variant.

Earlier Sunday, Health Ministry director Nachman Ash said a mounting infection rate could eventually find Israel in a situation of herd immunity, though at a steep cost.

“The trend is upwards — there will definitely be a surge,” Ash said. “We will see bigger numbers. Where will it stop? It’s hard to know. The price of herd immunity is very many infections, and that may end up happening. The numbers need to be high to reach herd immunity, it’s something that is possible. But we don’t want to reach it by means of infections. We want it to happen as a result of many people vaccinating.”

A health worker takes swab samples from Israelis at a drive-thru COVID-19 testing site in Jerusalem on January 2, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

In an official report handed to the coronavirus cabinet and in a series of media interviews, Prof. Eran Segal of the Weizmann Institute estimated that 2 to 4 million out of Israel’s total population of some 9.5 million will end up catching Omicron, but the number of simultaneous serious cases will not surpass the current record of approximately 1,200.

Meanwhile, experts from the Gertner Institute and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology presented several scenarios to Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, Health Ministry officials and hospital managers, the most extreme of which had 99% of Israel’s population catching Omicron. In an apparent response to the predictions by Bennett and others, Horowitz said such “apocalyptic scenarios” were unwarranted and only served to scare the public.

Proponents of herd immunity maintain that those infected with Omicron are the most protected against getting the strain again, and if a large enough percentage of the population has that protection, it will lead to the end of the outbreak — at least until a new variant starts spreading or until that immunity wanes over time.

The model is similar to the policy adopted by Sweden in the early stages of the pandemic, aiming to keep the economy open while keeping vulnerable populations in isolation. While that led to excess deaths and was abandoned by Stockholm, experts are increasingly saying the policy could work better now that we have vaccines and the milder, though far more infectious, Omicron.

Horowitz and other cabinet members have sought to keep health restrictions to a minimum, in favor of protecting the economy. Zarka said Monday that anything short of far-reaching measures would be ineffective anyway.

“In the situation we are in, light restrictions won’t help. We can go toward very significant restrictions like the first lockdown, because other restrictions won’t bring down infections. So we’re not recommending restrictions at this time just for the sake of saying we asked for them.”

People on Jaffa Street in Jerusalem on January 2, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“Our goal is to balance the rapid detection of verified cases, especially among high-risk groups whom we can offer the new drugs we’ve acquired, while at the same time allow as much normal life as possible,” Zarka said.

Zarka also pushed back against Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton, after she insisted that a “green classroom” program allowing students to remain in school after being exposed should be renewed and slammed the Health Ministry’s refusal to okay the extension.

“So long as Omicron is around, there will be no ‘green classroom,'” Zarka insisted.

“Our first priority is the kids’ health, before we bring them to school to learn,” he said. “We’ll hope that the wave passes quickly and we can go back to physically learning.”

Under the “green classroom” system, which applied to areas with low-to-medium infection rates (classified as green or yellow under the Health Ministry’s traffic light system), students who were exposed to a COVID-19 carrier could return to school, once they receive a negative PCR test result, rather than requiring the entire class to quarantine for a week.

With the expiration of the program, when a student tests positive for the virus, vaccinated children must undergo a rapid test before returning to the classroom, while all unvaccinated children must now stay home.

People line up in a queue at the entrance of a COVID-19 rapid antigen testing center in Jerusalem, on December 30, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Army Radio said that as of Monday morning, students from around 1,500 elementary school classes were no longer allowed to stay in school despite being eligible for the program. But with no official announcement on the matter, many parents and schools were unclear on who was permitted to be in school on Monday morning, after the program expired at midnight.

The education system is under increasing pressure, due to the highly contagious Omicron strain of the coronavirus, with thousands of students in quarantine and vaccinated educators losing teaching hours by having to wait in long lines for antigen tests (vaccinated or recovered Israelis do not have to isolate upon exposure to a COVID carrier, so long as they have a negative rapid test).

Zarka said that the government was aware of the long wait times for tests and was working to expand options, but sought to curb expectations that the issue would be solved.

“This is part of the effects of this wave,” he said. “We can’t totally put an end to the lines.”

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