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Living with COVID-19: Israel changes strategy as Delta variant hits

  • Masks again indoors in Israel
  • The Delta variant has led to infections
  • Israel follows soft suppression strategy
  • Strive for minimal disruption of everyday life

JERUSALEM, July 13 (Reuters) – Four weeks ago, Israel celebrated a return to normal life in its battle with COVID-19.

After a quick vaccination that reduced coronavirus infections and deaths, the Israelis stopped wearing face masks and gave up all rules of social distancing.

Then came the more contagious version of Delta and a jump in cases that forced Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to re-impose some restrictions on COVID-19 and rethink the strategy.

According to what he calls a “soft repression” policy, the government wants Israelis to learn to live with the virus – including as few restrictions as possible and avoiding a fourth national blockade that could further damage the economy.

Because most Israelis at risk are now vaccinated against COVID-19, Bennett relies on fewer people than before he became seriously ill when infections increased.

“Implementing the strategy will lead to certain risks, but in general, including economic factors, this is the necessary balance,” Bennett said last week.

The main indicator driving this move is the number of severe cases of COVID-19 in hospital, currently around 45. Implementation will include monitoring of infections, promotion of vaccinations, rapid tests and information campaigns for face masks.

The strategy made comparisons with the British government’s plans to reopen Britain’s economy from blockade, although Israel is in the process of rebuilding some curbs while London lifts restrictions.

The curbs that have been restored include the mandatory wearing of face masks indoors and quarantine for all people arriving in Israel.

Bennett’s strategy, like that of the British government, has been questioned by some scholars.

The Israeli Ministry of Health is advocating for more pressure to stop infections, Sharon Alroy-Price, head of public health at the Israeli Ministry of Health, told Khan Radio on Sunday.

“There may not be a large increase in the number of seriously ill people, but the cost of making such a mistake is what worries us,” she said.

But many other scholars support it.

“I strongly support Israel’s approach,” said Nadav Davidovich, director of the public health school at Israel’s Ben Gurion University, describing it as a “golden path” between easing British restrictions and countries like Australia taking a tighter line.

Travelers carry their luggage at the arrival terminal at Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport amid the spread of the coronavirus delta variant (COVID-19), near Tel Aviv, Israel, July 8, 2021. REUTERS / Amir Cohen / File Photo

THE VIRUS WILL NOT STOP

Israel’s last blockade was imposed in December, about a week after the start of one of the world’s fastest vaccination programs.

The new daily infections with COVID-19 are about 450. The Delta variant, first identified in India, now accounts for about 90% of cases.

“We estimate that we will not reach high waves of severe cases, as in previous waves,” Health Ministry Director General Nahman Ash said last week. “But if we see that the number and increase in severe cases threaten the (health) system, then we will have to take further steps.”

About 60% of Israel’s 9.3 million people have received at least one shot from the Pfizer / BioNtech vaccine. On Sunday, the government began offering a third shot to people with impaired immune systems.

Ran Baliser, chairman of the government’s COVID-19 expert group, said Israel had averaged about five severe cases of the virus and one death a day in the past week, after two weeks of zero COVID-19-related deaths.

Noting the impact of the Delta option, he said the panel advised caution when removing restrictions.

“We don’t have enough data from our local outbreak to be able to predict exactly what will happen if we release it,” Balisser said.

Some studies have shown that, although high, the effectiveness of the Pfizer / BioNTech vaccine against the Delta variant is lower than that of other strains of coronavirus.

Get criticism from some scientists, Pfizer (PFE.N) and BioNTech SE said they would ask US and European regulators to allow booster shots to prevent an increased risk of infection six months after inoculation. Read more

Israel is in no hurry to approve public booster photos, saying there is still no clear evidence that they are needed. It offers approval only to people with weak immune systems on a case-by-case basis.

Authorities are also considering allowing children under the age of 12 to get the vaccine on a case-by-case basis if they suffer from health conditions that put them at high risk of serious complications if they need to catch the virus.

Only “several hundred” of the 5.5 million people who were vaccinated in Israel were later infected with COVID-19, Ash said.

Prior to the arrival of the Delta variant, Israel had estimated that 75% of the population would need to be vaccinated to reach “herd immunity” – the level at which a sufficient immune group is immunized to effectively stop the spread of the disease. The forecast threshold is now 80%.

These data ensure that doctors remain concerned.

“… the virus will not stop. It is evolving, this is its nature. But our nature is to survive,” said Dr. Gaddy Segal, head of the coronavirus department at Sheba Medical Center near Tel Aviv.

Writing by Maayan Lubell; Edited by Jeffrey Heller and Timothy Legacy

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