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We will have to live with COVID-19 for a long time, says Israeli expert

New strains mean herd immunity impossible unless kids are vaccinated, leading epidemiologist says; ministry warns against reopening schools, recommends vaccine throughout pregnancy

People at the Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem on February 1, 2021, during the country's 3rd lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
People at the Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem on February 1, 2021, during the country's 3rd lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel — and the world — will have to learn to live under the shadow of COVID-19 for a long time due to the current inability to vaccinate children and the ever-mutating coronavirus, an Israeli expert said in comments reported Monday.

Before the more infectious UK and South African strains emerged, medical officials had estimated that around 60-70 percent of the population must become immune — either by recovering from the disease or by getting vaccinated — to achieve herd immunity, when the level of immunity will cause the outbreak to abate and eventually end.

That had already meant that since children under the age of 16 — about 30% of the country’s population — were excluded from vaccine trials and cannot be given the shot until additional, lengthy research is done, almost all adults would have to be inoculated to reach herd immunity levels, explained Prof. Eran Segal of the Weizmann Institute of Science, according to Channel 13 news.

But now, with each virus patient infecting more people as the mutated variants take over, a higher percentage of the population — 80-90% — must become immune to achieve herd immunity, meaning it can’t be reached without vaccinating kids and teenagers, said Prof. Gili Regev-Yochay, the director of Sheba Medical Center’s Infectious Disease Epidemiology Unit.

Prof. Gili Regev-Yochai, director of the infection, prevention and control unit of Sheba Medical Center at Tel-Hashomer (Youtube screenshot)

“We won’t be able to achieve herd immunity until kids are vaccinated,” she said according to Channel 13. “Right now, unfortunately, I see the issue of herd immunity getting farther and farther away, and the meaning is that we will have to live with the coronavirus for some time.”

The report said that “at least until the summer, we won’t be able to take off the masks.”

Health Ministry officials have been warning against a broad reopening of schools, citing sky-high infections among kids and arguing that reopening the education system will boost the prevalence of the British virus strain from the current 70% of all infections to 90%.

Illustrative: Israeli students arrive at a high school in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod, November 29, 2020. (Flash90)

If the 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 Nachman Ash said Monday in a press briefing. He noted that the option wasn’t relevant in the immediate future, but could be considered later.

The Health Ministry is urging the reopening of just kindergartens and grades 1-4 and 11-12 in low-to-medium infection zones, while in areas with higher infections, only kindergartens will open, as well as grades 11-12 for students who present a negative test result. Many students in those higher grades have started to be vaccinated under the ministry’s expanded inoculation program.

Eran Segal (Courtesy)

However, according to data released by a military task force on Tuesday, Israel’s transmission rate has continued to rise after falling for a number of weeks. The basic reproduction number, or R, which is the number of new cases stemming from each coronavirus infection, i.e., the number of people who caught the virus from each infected person, stood at 0.97, having fallen to 0.9 a week earlier.

Meanwhile, the ministry on Tuesday morning said 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.

A COVID-19 patient receives a family visit at the Hadassah Ein Kerem hospital in Jerusalem, February 1, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The data said 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.

The Health Ministry on Monday updated its previous recommendation regarding the vaccination of pregnant women. While it previously recommended against inoculating in the first trimester — noting that most complications happen during that period and that any potential link between them and the vaccine should be avoided — its updated stance stressed that the dangers of getting COVID-19 and its potential complications during the first trimester outweigh that risk.

Meanwhile, according to Channel 13 the Israel Defense Forces confirmed its worst outbreak since the start of the pandemic, when at least 110 new recruits from the Paratroopers Brigade tested positive at an army base in the south.

The military acknowledged not recognizing the outbreak quickly enough, having believed the complaints about various symptoms had been due to side effects of the vaccine. Some 30% of COVID-19 tests performed on the base returned a positive result, alarming officials who are now working to conduct more widespread tests throughout the base and quarantine all virus carriers.

The report did not clarify the extent of the vaccination program on the base. According to clinical trials, vaccines only reaches full efficacy a number of days after the second shot.

Despite the country being under lockdown for almost a month, infections have remained sky-high. 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 closed until Sunday.

Ministers are to meet on Wednesday afternoon at 2 p.m. to discuss the lockdown terms. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seeking to extend the closure beyond Friday, according to Channel 13. However, Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party is likely to strongly oppose any such extension.

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