Living with COVID-19: Israel Changes Strategy with Launch of Delta Variant | World news
JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Four weeks ago Israel celebrated a return to normal life in its battle against COVID-19.
After a rapid vaccination campaign that brought down coronavirus infections and deaths, Israelis stopped wearing face masks and ditched all social distancing rules.
Then came the more infectious Delta variant and an increase in cases that forced Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to reimpose some COVID-19 restrictions and rethink the strategy.
As part of what it calls a “soft suppression” policy, the government wants Israelis to learn to live with the virus – involving as few restrictions as possible and avoiding a fourth national lockdown that could further hurt the economy .
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Since most Israelis in risk groups have now been vaccinated against COVID-19, Bennett is counting on fewer people than before to fall seriously ill when infections increase.
“Implementing the strategy will involve taking some risk but in the bigger picture, including economics, that’s the balance needed,” Bennett said last week.
The main indicator guiding this decision is the number of severe cases of COVID-19 in hospital, currently around 45. Implementation will include surveillance for infections, encouragement of vaccinations, rapid tests and campaigns. information on face masks.
The strategy drew comparisons to the British government’s plans to reopen the English economy from the lockdown, although Israel is in the process of reintroducing some restrictions as London lifts the restrictions.
The restrictions that have been reinstated 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 scientists.
Israel’s health ministry is calling for more efforts to contain infections, Sharon Alroy-Preis, head of public health at Israel’s health ministry, told Kan radio on Sunday.
“There may not be a big increase in the number of seriously ill people but the price to pay for making such a mistake is what worries us,” she said.
But many other scientists are in favor.
“I am very supportive of Israel’s approach,” said Nadav Davidovich, director of the school of public health at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University, describing it as a “golden path” between easing restrictions by Britain and countries like Australia taking a harder line.
Israel’s last lockdown was enforced in December, about a week after the start of what has been one of the fastest vaccination programs in the world.
New daily COVID-19 infections are around 450. The Delta variant, first identified in India, now accounts for around 90% of cases.
“We believe that we will not reach high waves of severe cases as in previous waves,” Ministry of Health director general Nachman Ash said last week. “But if we see that the number and rate of increase in severe cases is putting the (health) system at risk, then we will need to take further action.”
About 60% of Israel’s 9.3 million people have received at least one injection of the Pfizer / BioNtech vaccine. On Sunday, the government began offering a third injection to people with weakened immune systems.
Ran Balicer, chairman of the government panel on COVID-19, said Israel had on average had around five severe cases of the virus and one death per day over the past week, after two weeks of zero deaths linked to COVID-19.
Noting the impact of the Delta variant, he said the panel advised to be cautious about removing restrictions.
“We don’t have enough data on our local outbreak to be able to accurately predict what would happen if we let go,” Balicer said.
Some studies have shown that although high, the efficacy of Pfizer / BioNTech vaccine against the Delta variant is lower than against other strains of coronavirus.
Drawing criticism from some scientists, Pfizer and BioNTech SE said they would ask US and European regulators to allow booster injections to avoid an increased risk of infection six months after inoculation.
Israel is in no rush to approve the public booster injections, saying there is no clear data yet showing they are needed. It only offers approval to people with weak immune systems on a case-by-case basis.
Authorities are also considering allowing children under 12 to be vaccinated on a case-by-case basis if they suffer from health conditions that put them at high risk of serious complications if they catch the virus.
Only “a few hundred” of the 5.5 million people who were vaccinated in Israel were subsequently infected with COVID-19, Ash said.
Prior to the arrival of the Delta variant, Israel estimated that 75% of the population would need to be vaccinated to achieve “herd immunity” – the level to which a sufficient population is immune to be able to effectively stop the spread of ‘a sickness. The estimated threshold is now 80%.
This data ensures that doctors remain concerned.
“… the virus will not stop. It evolves, it is its nature. But our nature is to survive,” said Dr Gadi Segal, chief of the coronavirus department at Sheba Medical Center near Tel Aviv.
(Written by Maayan Lubell; edited by Jeffrey Heller and Timothy Heritage)
Copyright 2021 Thomson Reuters.