One month into Israel's third and latest lockdown, and with over 3 million people vaccinated against Covid-19 including 1.8 million having had their second Pfizer dose, the virus is stubbornly refusing to fade. On Sunday, 5,140 new cases of coronavirus were reported (up from 4,924 last week) by the Ministry of Health, with 10% of the 55,000 tests conducted proving positive.
There are still 1,140 people seriously ill in hospital with Covid - a number that has not fallen for several weeks - and there have been 4,804 fatalities in Israel since the start of the pandemic, over 30% of them in January. A record number of people died last week including 74 in one day alone. It was therefore no surprise that the cabinet decided last night to extend the lockdown until at least Friday morning.
Prof. Eli Waxman of the Weizmann Institute of Science, an advisor to the coronavirus cabinet, feels that there is still far to go to get back to the pre-Covid routine. He addressed the cabinet yesterday and stressed that the vaccination rollout is no magic solution to the crisis and that the country's leadership needs to 'change its tune' and change the way it has been managing the crisis, in order to prevent a significant worsening of the situation.
He said, "We are standing at the opening of a new phase in the struggle against the coronavirus, mainly because of two significant developments: the vaccination drive and the spread of the new variants. Correct management will reduce the damage of the virus to people and to the economy, and in the long run, after children have been vaccinated, it will be possible to return to normal."
Prof. Waxman continued, "However, we want to set up a warning sign. The country is not on its way to beating the virus any time soon. The vaccination rollout has been successful but will not solve the crisis in the near future by itself, and an unchecked exit from the current lockdown would lead to a severe wave of infections. Without a substantial change in managing the crisis, we will quickly reach a dire choice between a fourth lockdown, with its economic damage, or very many unnecessary victims."
An analysis of the influence of the pace of vaccinations of the population on the spread of the virus in the coming months against the backdrop of the appearance of the new variants has led Waxman to a clear conclusion. It is not possible to control the virus and prevent its rampant spread without social distancing and the correct behavior, with the vaccinations as a supporting tool.
This is because the existing scale of vaccinations at this stage will not alone prevent the spread of the virus and will still leave the elderly population significantly vulnerable and might lead to thousands of deaths and tens of thousands of people in a serious condition, even on the assumption that the Pfizer vaccine is 95% effective and even after 95% of the elderly population have been inoculated.
According to Waxman, if there are three million people in Israel's elderly population, then even on an optimistic assumption, if the virus were left unchecked, that 30% of cases among the elderly would be asymptomatic, there would still be between 15,000 and 40,000 severe cases and about 7,000 - 14,000 deaths. Because nearly a third of Israel's population is made up of children, and under 16s are not being vaccinated, it will be impossible to reach levels of herd immunity.
Waxman calculates that if five million out of Israel's 9.3 million people are vaccinated, and the virus is left unchecked, then this would halve Israel's R rate from three to 1.5, but if the British mutation is dominant it would only fall from three to two. So without social distancing the vaccination could spread very quickly. Especially vulnerable would be the ultra-orthodox haredi and Arab sectors, where the rate of vaccinations is relatively low.
Waxman calls on the government not to be dazzled by the success of the vaccination rollout and to behave responsibly. He said, "The data accumulated from the vaccine rollout is that the vaccine develops over a significantly slower period of time than Pfizer's data. Therefore, the only way to control the virus with the economy working and society functioning is the way that has been at our disposal throughout the crisis - lowering morbidity to a rate of hundreds of cases per day or less, which allows cutting the spread through local measures in concentrations of exceptional infections. The vaccine will help but won't allow us to control infections in this way."
Waxman thus calls on the government to impose a gradual plan to come out of lockdown according to morbidity targets. He said that since May, the government had no long term targets and the situation has been handled 'unprofessionally' with no management and insufficient explanations in areas of exceptionally high infections, especially in the haredi sector.
He said, "It has brought dreadful results. On the economic level the need to impose second and third lockdowns wreaked enormous damage on the economy not only in the present but also in the long term. On the health level, thousands have died and many thousands have been seriously ill in hospital, which with proper handling could have been avoided."
Although there has been a very slight slowdown in morbidity over the past few weeks, Waxman insists that lifting the lockdown is not an option at this stage. "We could begin with safer relaxations, for example, in work places that don't receive the public, but only after a sustained and distinct fall in infections, and not according to any date or time. This will require more than a week to fall to around 2,000 daily new infections. In such a situation, we could also begin to open up areas of the economy but only if there is a continued and definite fall in infections.
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on February 1, 2021
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