Despite the spike in COVID-19 cases, public health officials urge calm, stressing that the system can handle the number of serious cases. However, they argue that now is the time for the government to commit to preventive health care strategies and address inequities in the system.
Dr. Hagai Levine, associate professor of epidemiology at the Braun School of Public Health at Hadassah Medical Center and Hebrew University says that the public needs to adjust its expectations regarding the new “normal.”
“The idea that you have a wave, it’s over, and you could go completely back to normal, is wrong in a sense,” he told The Media Line, emphasizing the need for preventive care and investment in Israel’s health system regardless of whether there is a pandemic.
“If you listen carefully to us public health officials…, we said there is no guarantee of herd immunity, so new variants or for a surge of cases in Israel was always possible,” Levine said. “The surprise was that it didn’t happen earlier.”
As such, Levine says that we must learn how to minimize our risks of the coronavirus while living our everyday lives, which can be best achieved by vaccinating everyone eligible for a coronavirus inoculation and bolstering the health care system.
Prof. Nadav Davidovitch, director of the School of Public Health at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev attributes the rise in cases to lax enforcement of rules at the airport and people returning from places outside of Israel with low vaccine rates.
“Now 90% of cases are people infected in Israel; more than 50% are among children who are not vaccinated,” he told The Media Line.
Although Hebrew University researchers warn that COVID-19 cases could climb to 1,000 in two weeks, other public health experts say that the health system is not being taxed the same way it was last year, with fewer hospitalizations.
“We are not talking about collapse of the system and following the severe and hospitalized cases,” Davidovitch said. “For now, the rise is relatively slow, especially when you compare it to similar numbers during the second and third waves.”
Levine agrees, adding that In Israel, “previously it was an unconventional risk and now it’s a conventional risk.
“I always say people die from influenza and other diseases and we need to take better care of health. … In Israel, every winter we have overcrowded hospitals and clinics and people die from that,” Levine added. “So, we need to take care and make change in infrastructure and resources we allocate toward health system in general.”
This includes investing in preventative medicine for the coronavirus and other diseases.
“At the community level, we need to develop health units in the municipalities that help people with health needs, like a ride to get a vaccine or to get medical treatment,” Levine said. “We need to promote healthy environments to reduce obesity and smoking which are bad on their own, but obese people die more from COVID-19.”
Levine says that another issue that needs to be addressed is the difference in health outcomes based on wealth, as in Israel the mortality rate for coronavirus was five times higher in municipalities characterized by lower socioeconomic levels in comparison to high-socioeconomic-level municipalities.
This includes programs targeting certain populations, such as Arab Israelis and the ultra-Orthodox. Levine notes there has been a surge of vaccinations in adolescents ages 12 through 15, but not in these minority groups.
Prof. Ronit Calderon-Margalit, also of the Braun School of Public Health at Hadassah Medical Center and Hebrew University says that the increase in cases is still cause for concern.
“Some people will get long-haul COVID [continuing to experience symptoms weeks or even months after testing negative for the virus] and there’s a chance of new variants developing so that’s why we still worry,” she told The Media Line.
Calderon-Margalit says two ways Israel could reduce the number of coronavirus cases are to tighten enforcement of the mask mandate and reinstitute a green-pass-like system.
She also says that these cycles of increasing and decreasing numbers of COVID-19 cases will be the norm as people venture overseas.
“As long as we have international travel for whatever reason and people around the world are not going to be vaccinated, we will see this,” Calderon-Margalit said.