Virus czar says there’s room for optimism as morbidity rate slows

Nachman Ash assesses national lockdown could be eased even if number of active patients high, as long as serious cases tapering off

Israel's coronavirus czar, Prof. Nachman Ash, visits at the coronavirus department at the Ziv hospital in Safed, in northern Israel. December 24, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)
Israel's coronavirus czar, Prof. Nachman Ash, visits at the coronavirus department at the Ziv hospital in Safed, in northern Israel. December 24, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)

National coronavirus czar Nachman Ash expressed optimism Sunday that the combination of lockdown measures and Israel’s fast-paced mass inoculation program was beginning to impact the virus’s spread, slowing down infection rates.

Ash’s remarks came as the number of seriously ill COVID-19 patients reached its highest level since the start of the pandemic in the country.

“We are in a race between the morbidity and the vaccinations,” he said.

“There could be cause for certain optimism because the [morbidity] graph is not going up exponentially,” but has started to bend to a straight line, Ash told reporters in a video conference briefing on the virus. A straighter line indicates a constant, rather than a rising, rate of infection.

“It could be the effect of the vaccines or the partial lockdown over the past two weeks,” he said. “We estimate that the first effect of the vaccinations is after about 10 days [from when the shots were given], so we should already see it.”

The change could alter the conditions officials set for easing the lockdown, begun two weeks ago and further tightened on Friday.

“If we see a drop in the number of seriously ill, we can open things up even with a higher number of active patients than we had initially laid down,” he said.

Another consideration is the arrival in Israel over the past two weeks of mutated strains of the virus that, though not more lethal, are more contagious. Ash made a rough estimate that of the new cases in that period, 10 to 20 percent came from a mutated strain first detected in Britain, and a much lower number came from another strain found in South Africa.

“This is something we try very hard to contain and are pouncing on the cases to isolate them,” he said.

Sheba Medical staff members receive the second round of the COVID-19 vaccine, at the Sheba Medical Center Tel haShomer outside of Tel Aviv, on January 10, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The national vaccination program reached a milestone Sunday, as those who have already had the first round of the two-shot Pfizer inoculation three weeks ago began to get their second injection alongside those getting their first shot. So far the program, which has focused on health workers, those over the age of 60 and at-risk groups, has given first shots to around a fifth of Israel’s 9.29 million citizens.

Among those to get their second shot Sunday was President Reuven Rivlin.

Ash said that over Wednesday-Friday this week teachers will start to receive inoculations, beginning with those in special education. In addition, if there are enough vaccines available, immunization will also be opened up for those aged over 55, and then those over 50.

“It depends on the number of vaccines we get,” he said.

He backed up Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s estimate that by the end of March all of the county’s citizens over the age of 16 will have been vaccinated. Netanyahu was at Ben Gurion Airport Sunday to welcome the arrival of another plane-load of vaccinations. Rapidly depleting stockpiles had threatened to slow down the vaccination drive, but Israel reached a deal with Pfizer to bring forward the arrival of more vaccine units.

Health systems are currently managing to vaccinate 150,000 people a day but the aim is to push that number to 200,000, Ash said, in order to be able to both continue vaccinating new people and administer the second shot to those who have already had the first.

He said in the coming days the country will also begin using the Moderna vaccine, which is handled differently to the Pfizer vaccine, offering more vaccine units in each vial and a longer shelf life after being thawed for use. Both vaccines must be used within days of being removed from freezers.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein has reportedly asked ministry officials to look into the option of continuing vaccinations into the nighttime, keeping vaccination centers open for longer hours.

Record number of seriously ill

Alongside the optimism from Israel’s vaccination drive, however, the number of coronavirus patients in serious condition reached 1,056 on Sunday evening, the highest number since the start of the pandemic in the country earlier this year.

Almost a quarter of the seriously ill COVID-19 patients in Israel’s hospitals are below the age of 60, the Ynet news site reported Sunday, citing Health Ministry data.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein (R) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Ben Gurion Airport as a fresh batch of Pfizer vaccines arrives on January 10, 2021. (Screenshot: Facebook)

According to the reported data, some 24 percent of the patients are below the age of 60. That includes 14.6% aged 50-59, 5.4% aged 40-49, and 2.1% aged 30-39.

In addition, there are three men and a woman in their 20s, three teenage girls, and two more girls below the age of 10 who are all seriously ill.

The data showed that 76% of the seriously ill are aged 60 and up, with 6.3% over 90, 21.3% aged 80-89, 26.7% aged 70-79, and 22.7% age 60-69.

There were240 patients on ventilators, of whom 76% were over the age of 60. Among the rest, there is a man in his 20s and the two girls below the age of 10 who are also on ventilators.

As the third wave of the pandemic continues to take a heavy toll on the country, the Health Ministry reported an increase of 36 serious cases in the previous 24 hours and nearly 300 in a week.

Since the virus outbreak began in the country, 489,995 people had been diagnosed with the virus as of Sunday evening and 3,663 had died. There were 68,681 active cases in the country.

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