Covid is back to scaring Israel. The arrival of the delta variant ended the idyllic post-pandemic feeling in one of the world’s most vaccinated nations, which reopened the economy just three weeks ago. In recent days, outbreaks caused by the mutation first identified in India have sprung up across the country, leading to shifts in officials’ strategy and eroding the sense of relief among residents, who thought they were protected by the success of mass immunization.
Although few, new cases draw attention. May and June were the months with the fewest deaths from coronaviruses in Israel in one year. From the 14th to the 21st of June, for example, there was not a single death.
But from an average of just 20 infected daily, Israel began to register numbers above 100. As of Monday (21), 122 people were diagnosed with Covid. On Tuesday (22), 110, and on Wednesday (23), 138. Currently, there are more than 680 active cases in the country — a figure well above the 200 average for May, although much lower than the peak of 85,000 infections active before the vaccination campaign.
Health officials have said they will re-enforce the obligation to wear masks in closed spaces – which had been repealed on June 15 – if more than 100 cases a day, on average, for a week are detected. The main concern is the fact that the outbreaks are taking place in schools, as children up to 12 years old have not been vaccinated and only 4.5% of the 600,000 teenagers aged 12 to 15 in the country received the first dose — the vaccination for this age group started just two weeks ago.
“I’m concerned,” admitted Nachman Ash, leader of Israel’s anti-Covid-19 task force, in an interview with local radio. there is the possibility of propagation.”
WHO consultant Eyal Leshem, director of the Center for Travel Medicine and Tropical Diseases at Sheba Medical Center, said the fear is that Israel will repeat what is currently happening in the UK, where, despite the high level of vaccination, there are one discharge from hospitalizations due to the delta variant.
“Anything that happens to us in the coming weeks could be a repeat of England,” says Leshem. “The delta variant has already been found in over 80 countries around the world, and where it entered it quickly became the predominant one. This can happen here too.”
In Israel, 63% of the population has already received at least one dose of the immunizing agent from Pfizer/BioNTech, and 59%, both. Over 50 years, the percentage of fully immunized reaches 90%. For Leshem, it is possible to say that Israel is experiencing a situation of collective immunity, with 70% of the population vaccinated or recovered, as more than 830,000 people have already been infected by the virus.
Delta, however, spreads more quickly and, in addition to being able to infect children and the approximately 10% of adults who still hesitate to immunize, it is also being detected in vaccinated adults. Scottish government data reported in the medical journal The Lancet, yet unreviewed by peers, indicates that the efficacy of the two doses of Pfizer’s immunizer is 92% for the alpha variant and 79% for the delta variant. AstraZeneca’s vaccine showed 73% efficacy for alpha and 60% for delta.
Two places have become centers of concern: the cities of Modi’in and Binyamin, but there are other small outbreaks scattered across the country. In total, about 300 children and a few dozen adults have been diagnosed with coronavirus and thousands of people are in quarantine.
The result is an increased demand for vaccination among adolescents. Warm so far due to the sense of normalcy, it has quadrupled in the past few days. Hezi Levi, director-general of the Ministry of Health, admitted to the local media that there was no urgency, on the part of the ministry, in leveraging the vaccination of this segment of the population, something that has now changed.
Against this backdrop, Israel’s new Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, re-established the Coronavirus Cabinet, which had been dismembered, and made a statement on Tuesday (22) in which he urged Israelis not to travel abroad, except in vital cases . The new outbreak started due to the reopening of the country, albeit limited, to foreigners and the increase of Israelis traveling abroad, mainly to six countries considered dangerous — Brazil, India, Russia, South Africa, Mexico and Argentina.
In theory, they can only travel to or from these countries if they receive special authorization from a committee of the Ministry of Health. But at Ben Gurion International Airport, practically the only air port of entry into Israel, there wasn’t much checking. Many also falsified authorizations, and others sought connecting flights in liberated countries. “As long as there are people traveling and returning from abroad, there is a danger of importing new variants and an increase in the number of cases,” says Leshem.
Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz has vowed to tighten the siege at the airport and impose hefty fines on anyone who ignores instructions. From now on, any passenger will have to undergo a PCR test when disembarking in Israel – even those already immunized. Anyone infected will have to be quarantined with an electronic bracelet that alerts authorities if the person leaves the house. The government also announced that the tourists’ return, scheduled for July 1st, has been postponed to August 1st.
Despite all the concern, Leshem says Israel is still in a good position due to mass vaccinations. So, he says, even if there are more hospitalizations, there won’t be as many deaths as in the three waves the country has faced since March 2020. Altogether, nearly 840,000 Israelis have been infected since the beginning of the pandemic and 6,429 have died.
“The majority of those infected are made up of healthy young people or people who have already been immunized. Therefore, although there are already hundreds of cases of the delta variant in the country, we still do not see an increase in the number of hospitalized patients, in critical condition, or in mortality. The biggest danger is the 10% of Israeli adults who have not been vaccinated. Those, yes, can develop a serious disease”, he says.
In his statement, the prime minister also revealed that, despite having enough doses to immunize young people aged 12 to 15 and hesitant adults, Israel’s stock will expire at the end of July. Given the recent outbreaks, the country is trying to anticipate the arrival of new shipments from Pfizer/BioNTech, scheduled for the last quarter of this year. The idea is to administer a third dose from January to those already immunized and vaccinate children up to 12 years old as soon as the FDA, the US regulatory body, gives the green light to the application of immunizers to this age group.
According to Leshem, the Israeli case could be a wake-up call to the world that Covid is here to stay.
“It is possible to learn from Israel that if you get to a situation where the majority of the population, especially the elderly, is vaccinated, you can go back to a normal life. But there is, in medicine or in life in general, zero risk. We have to keep an eye out.”