Israel’s Rising Covid Cases Aren’t So Scary This Time
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Israel has been the world’s laboratory during much of the Covid era. It was the first country to achieve mass inoculations, first to add a booster to the two-shot regimen of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid vaccine, and first to broaden inoculation to children who are 12 and over. By the start of the summer, it appeared to be on the way to becoming the first country to achieve herd immunity.
And yet Israel now has the world’s highest rolling weekly average of new Covid cases. That’s been something of a shock and raises the question of whether the country’s pandemic plan has worked. While the news may look grim, and the government has been scrambling to respond, the reality is more prosaic: Israel hasn’t defeated the virus, but it has probably redefined what success against the virus looks like. It’s a messy reality, but not an intolerable one.
The new government of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has a sanguine attitude toward recent developments. On Saturday, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz assured the country that everything was under control. “Stop with the panic!” he enjoined the public. “I said there won’t be a lockdown and there isn’t one.” He repeated his promise not to close schools or shops.
The minister’s optimism was based in large part on an analysis by scientists at Hebrew University that concluded that the rise of reported new cases is largely due to the rise in testing as the school year begins.
Sigal Regev Rosenberg, head of one of Israel’s four national health maintenance organizations, shares the minister’s optimism but not his rationale. “Tests have nothing to do with the number of new cases,” she says. “The problem is the infectiousness of the delta variant. We haven’t been able to block it.”
That may be changing. While the vaccines have been successful for Israel, it seems that that protection they offer diminishes faster than originally hoped. But the booster is said to be doubling the immunity of those who previously got the two-jab regimen.
Indeed, while Covid case numbers have risen, the rates of serious illness and mortality remain low. “I think it is time to stop publishing the number of new cases,” says Regev Rosenberg. “They are trivial. Most of the active cases right now are unvaccinated children or under-vaccinated adolescents who don’t really get sick. Sure, they can be infectious, but the vulnerable population, those over 60, are very well protected.”
Like many of her colleagues in Israel, Regev Rosenberg is skeptical of the “serious cases” category: “One of the lessons we have learned over the past 18 months is that at least half the people in the hospital could be treated just as well by the home hospitalization units of the HMOs.”
Nor are the hospitals close to capacity. “We can take care of anybody who comes in,” Dror Mevorach, the director of Hadassah Hospital’s Covid unit, said when I spoke to him. “We’re nowhere near a red line.” Neither are the other major medical centers in Israel, he says.
This week marks the Jewish New Year and the start of a month of prayer and celebration. Last year, it was a grim occasion. Travel was restricted, the size of public and private gatherings was severely limited, police were mobilized to keep order, and an atmosphere of crisis hung over the country.
Those harsh official decrees have been replaced by friendly government recommendations and guidelines. Bars, restaurants, stores, synagogues, theatres, soccer stadiums, concerts and the airport are open to the fully vaccinated. Travel restrictions remain, but some look set to be relaxed, too.
There is certainly a political benefit to the government’s more liberal approach. Bennett’s bet is that the booster will keep the number of delta-related deaths and life-threatening illnesses stable, that vaccinating young people will pay off, and that no vaccine-resistant variants will enter the equation. The “new cases” statistic will no longer be a headline grabber. If this approach works Israel will, once more, be seen as a Covid pioneer.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Zev Chafets is a journalist and author of 14 books. He was a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the founding managing editor of the Jerusalem Report Magazine.
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