With millions unvaccinated, Palestinians fear school year coronavirus surge

Recorded cases in West Bank, Gaza are on the rise but still low; health official in the Strip speculates it has seen enough infected to reach herd immunity

Palestinians from the Ministry of Health receive a shipment of the Russian Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine doses sent by the United Arab Emirates, after the Egyptian authorities allowed entry to Gaza through the Rafah crossing in the southern Gaza Strip, on February 21, 2021. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Palestinians from the Ministry of Health receive a shipment of the Russian Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine doses sent by the United Arab Emirates, after the Egyptian authorities allowed entry to Gaza through the Rafah crossing in the southern Gaza Strip, on February 21, 2021. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

With Palestinian schools and universities set to open on Monday, health officials in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip fear a new coronavirus wave could soon strike millions of the unvaccinated.

“We fear a new wave in the coming weeks as schools reopen. That could cause the rise in cases that we fear,” said Majdi Daher, a doctor in the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry who has coordinated much of the enclave’s coronavirus response.

The school year opens for Palestinians amidst a fast-surging wave of coronavirus in neighboring Israel. The infections are mostly from the Delta variant, which is far more contagious than the original coronavirus.

Shadi al-Laham, who leads the Bethlehem directorate in the Palestinian Authority Health Ministry, echoed Daher’s concerns.

“We believe a fourth wave could be on its way once the schools and universities reopen,” al-Laham said in a phone call.

While there have been very few registered cases for several weeks, the curve of infections is already beginning to rise across the West Bank, according to al-Laham.

The Palestinian Authority Health Ministry said on Sunday that there were 3,273 active coronavirus cases in the West Bank and Gaza. Some 388 new cases were found there over the past 24 hours, the Health Ministry said.

“Bit by bit, the situation is beginning to get worse again,” al-Laham said, saying he expects the coming wave to peak in mid-September.

Palestinian health workers at a hospital in the West Bank town of Nablus, where health workers were vaccinated against the coronavirus after the delivery of vaccine doses from Israel. February 03, 2021 (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

In Israel, ministers have proposed delaying the beginning of the school year until October, after the Jewish High Holidays, in an attempt to avoid the fast-spreading Delta variant hitting the education system.

In a press conference on Sunday, however, senior Palestinian Authority officials affirmed that the school year would begin on schedule on Monday. According to PA Health Minister Mai al-Kaila, 82 percent of government employees in schools have been vaccinated in an attempt to stave off the virus.

Students in sixth grade and over will be required to wear masks in closed spaces, al-Kaila said. Any students showing coronavirus symptoms would be summarily sent to be tested, she said.

Imposing such restrictions will be a challenge. Few masks and even less social distancing are in evidence in most Palestinian cities, both in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip.

“In Khan Younis, my city, it’s rare to see anyone with a mask. And when the police crack down, they do so for maybe a week and then relax,” former PA health minister Jawad al-Tibi said in a phone interview in early August.

Recorded cases in the West Bank and Gaza have remained relatively low over the past few weeks, even though most Palestinians remain unvaccinated — and despite the surge of cases in neighboring Israel.

As of Sunday, just 5.5% of Gazans and 18% of West Bank Palestinians had received at least one coronavirus vaccine dose — 116,530 Gazans and 518,677 West Bankers, respectively.

Little testing is being done, however. PA health official Wisam Sbeihat told Voice of Palestine on Sunday morning that the recorded number of cases “did not reflect reality,” given how few Palestinians were being tested in the West Bank.

But Daher speculated that, at least in Gaza, so many residents have been infected by the virus that it had generated a form of herd immunity, with or without vaccines.

“The second wave in the Gaza Strip was brutal. The infection rates were extremely high, and we expect that most Gaza residents were infected during this second wave,” said Daher.

“There could be a kind of herd immunity that’s emerged from the number of infections, since so many got sick,” he added.

Daher warned that those who fell sick during Gaza’s first wave could potentially be reinfected, given that considerable time had passed and their defensive antibodies may have been depleted.

Palestinians have cobbled together their coronavirus doses in piecemeal shipments from an eclectic array of sources. In Ramallah, most doses have come from COVAX, an international vaccine-sharing mechanism backed by the United Nations and the World Health Organization.

The PA, which has limited self-rule in parts of the West Bank, also signed a contract with Pfizer to import some 4 million doses. Around 1 million have arrived so far, according to the PA Health Ministry.

Students sit in a classroom on the first day of the new school year at the United Nations-run Elementary School at the Shati refugee camp in Gaza City, August 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

Another 105,000 Palestinians who work in Israel were vaccinated by the Israeli government at checkpoints across the West Bank. Several other countries — China, Russia, and India — also sent token amounts of their national coronavirus vaccines as a goodwill gesture.

In Gaza, Palestinians have received some vaccines from COVAX. They have also received shipments of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine from the United Arab Emirates. The doses were coordinated by Mohammad Dahlan, an exiled Palestinian politician considered a close associate of Abu Dhabi’s rulers.

For months, this patchwork supply delayed the Palestinians’ vaccine rollout. But now, according to al-Laham, at least some West Bank Palestinians have been dragging their feet in getting vaccinated.

“As of right now, we have doses available. Anyone over 18 who wants to be vaccinated can be vaccinated, with Pfizer and AstraZeneca and Sputnik. But we don’t see enough people coming to be vaccinated,” said al-Laham.

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