How the Delta variant forced Israel to rethink its Covid strategy

For much of this year Israel has been hailed as a Covid-19 success story. It launched one of the fastest vaccination units in the world, reopened its economy and scrapped all remaining blockchain restrictions last month.

Now rising infection rates, driven by the more infectious Delta variant, have forced the Israeli government to reintroduce restrictions for the first time since January.

While hospitalization rates remain low, Israel has chosen a prudent approach. The Israelis have once again put on masks inside and on public transportation, the test sites have been reopened. Several other restrictions, including a stricter quarantine for travelers and a larger test for children, are expected to be introduced. Israel can also report the “green pass,” which has allowed greater freedom for vaccinators.

“We do not expect to protect the health of Israeli citizens. It must be understood, the Delta variant is running around the world at a much higher rate than all the previous variants, ”Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said on Sunday.

Israel has led one of the world’s fastest vaccination projects after securing abundant supplies from Pfizer in exchange for sharing data on the impact of the jab. But cases have been stalled since Israel lifted all remaining Covid restrictions on June 1, with several experts blaming the highly transmissible Delta variant brought to Israel by return travelers.

Passengers at Ben Gurion Airport in Israel. Many experts have blamed the increasing cases of the Delta variant brought into the country by return travelers © Jack Guez / AFP via Getty Images

After weeks of daily infection rates at one figure, the number of new cases has grown to more than 400 per day this week. As of Wednesday, the country had more than 3,345 active cases – almost three times that of the previous week – although the health ministry said only 46 were considered seriously ill. And as the number of infections grows, its coronavirus rate – at 25 new cases per 100,000 people every seven days – is still much lower than the UK, which has a rate of 267. Cyprus, the EU country with the newest infection, he has a seven-day fee of 424.

The Covid districts of Israeli hospitals remain largely vacant, with health experts organizing vigilance and calm.

“[Israel’s] the numbers grow, and continue to grow. We are definitely at the beginning of a fourth wave, which could be bigger in terms of numbers of general infections, ”said Professor Gili Regev-Yochay, director of the Infection Prevention and Control Unit at Sheba Medical Center. “But the number of seriously ill people is much lower.” [than previous waves] and will not collapse the health system. We have to be careful, not panic or hysterical. ”

Log scale line graph showing nine confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Israel, UK, Portugal, Spain, Cyprus and the United States

A preliminary study compiled by the health ministry this week indicated that the BioNTech / Pfizer vaccine was still 93 percent effective against serious diseases and hospitalization, but only 64 percent effective in preventing infections.

“According to Israeli data, there is a potential decrease in the effectiveness of vaccines against infections and mild diseases compared to Delta, and strong preliminary signs to this effect,” said Dr. Ran Balicer. , a senior official of the health organization Clalit and chairman of the Israeli government’s Covid national advisory committee. But Balicer and other health experts warned that the study was based on numbers of preliminary and highly localized infections, and faced several methodological challenges.

Studies in other countries have also documented a decrease in efficacy for the Pfizer jab against the Delta variant versus previous strains, although less severe. Public Health England May found the supplied vaccine 88 per cent protection against symptomatic infections with Delta, and 93 per cent against the Alpha variant first identified in Kent, England.

People without masks at the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv earlier this year
People without masks at the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv earlier this year. The government has now reintroduced a mask mandate © Amir Levy / Getty Images

More than 5m of Israel’s 9m citizens have been completely vaccinated with the Pfizer vaccine. Since the recent increase in case numbers, a new effort has been launched to inoculate the estimated 1.2m of remaining adolescents over the age of 12 and unvaccinated adults. While the parents were initially reluctant, last week 150,000 teenagers received the blow, including the 14-year-old daughter of Prime Minister Bennett.

“The most important factor for long-term control of the spread of diseases is increasing the number of vaccines,” Dr. Balicer said. “It decreases severe cases and increases the ‘vaccine wall’ against the spread of diseases.”

With Covid’s new guidelines, the government goes a step further, although the chances of a new lockdown at the national level – similar to the three previous ones the country has imposed in the last 18 months – were “very, very high”. low, “according to Regev-Yochay.

“They are not draconian measures… Which has hurt the economy. Moderation and proportionality are key,” Dr. Balicer said.

The Israeli public, for its part, seems frustrated by the new restrictions, offering an overview of the challenges that may arise for governments that find a need to reinstate the restrictions.

The mask warrant introduced last week was accepted with only partial success. Avi, 50, a freelance boss, forgot his mask on the last day of the week while shopping at a central Tel Aviv supermarket. “I was on the bus earlier in the day and then now in the supermarket – no one told me anything,” he said. “I’m a law-abiding citizen, though [once] we are used to going with it [masks], they planted it. Now we have to get used to it again. They drive us crazy. ”

Matan, 52, the owner of a nearby coffee shop, was even more adamant about the new measures. “They just need to check one thing: how many serious diseases there are. They don’t grow everywhere. If it was a bad flu, would they shut down the whole country? No,” he said. “It’s a joke.” The new [Bennett] government, they look like good people, but they and the media are not going to run a business. ”

Officials hope the public will finally understand the need for these new initial steps – and that further restrictions will not be necessary.

“No one knows what the effect will be if we just let the disease get out of control. We don’t want to have to make a strong U-turn down the line,” Dr. Balicer said.

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