Israel Planning for Monthslong, Multistage Lockdown Exit
Public health experts say country learned a lesson from lifting restrictions too quickly after first closure
Israel is reportedly close to moving forward with plans for a multistage exit from the current coronavirus lockdown that could take months to fully implement.
Public health experts tell The Media Line that the government wants to avoid the situation after the first lockdown was lifted too quickly and infection rates came roaring back, leading to the second lockdown that is into the third week, including two weeks of stricter regulations.
“It is important that we have a staged exit strategy that is conditioned by the number or severity of the distribution of the disease,” says Prof. Gabriel Barbash, former CEO of Sourasky Medical Center in Tel Aviv.
A report Saturday that aired on Israel’s Channel 12 said that the Health Ministry’s lockdown exit plan will include a total of eight stages staggered over a period of four months, contingent upon steadily decreasing daily infection rates.
However, Barbash is quick to point out that nothing has been decided yet in terms of exactly what the stages are to include and what the conditions will be for moving from one step to another.
“This is the first preliminary plan to exit the lockdown. For sure it is necessary because our last exit was very bad,” Barbash said.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was reportedly scheduled to hold a preliminary discussion about the exit strategy on Sunday with Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, Finance Minister Israel Katz, Science and Technology Minister Izhar Shay and coronavirus commissioner Prof. Ronni Gamzu.
The coronavirus cabinet is set to meet on Tuesday and is expected to make the first in a series of decisions about the lockdown exit plan that could include the reopening of preschools and businesses that don’t receive customers. The first stage could also see the 1-kilometer travel limitation lifted, beaches reopen, demonstrations allowed, restaurant takeaway service starting up again and new flights operating at Ben-Gurion International Airport.
The first stage could begin as soon as next Sunday, October 18 if the number of new daily cases is at 2,000 or below.
The past few days have seen a reduction in new cases and positivity testing rates. On Sunday, according to Health Ministry data, 888 new cases were identified out of 13,404 test results for a positive percentage of 6.62%. There were 850 patients in severe condition and 233 on respirators. Out of a total of 290,079 cases, 1,956 patients have died and 225,929 have recovered.
The idea is not to return into another lockdown like what happened with the first one when we got out with an exit strategy that was too fast and not really adapted to the situation of reducing infectivity
Prof. Nadav Davidovitch, director of the School of Public Health at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, says that the goal is to learn to live with COVID-19 while the world waits for a vaccine, which will take time.
“This is why we need an exit strategy that is very gradual that finally will get us into a very low number of infections where testing and contact tracing and isolation and quarantine will be a much more efficient way if there is widespread community transfer,” Davidovitch remarks.
Adds Davidovitch: “The idea is not to return into another lockdown like what happened with the first one when we got out with an exit strategy that was too fast and not really adapted to the situation of reducing infectivity.”
Avoiding a third lockdown is up to the Israeli public, Barbash emphasizes. Will they comply with the rules?
“Nobody can guarantee that there won’t be a third lockdown. Hopefully not if we behave as we are required to behave, according to the steps that are predesigned,” Barbash says.
Both Davidovitch and Barbash agree on the importance of limiting large gatherings, with Barbash predicting that major events like spectators at soccer matches and guests at weddings won’t return until mid-2021, even though as the eighth and final stage these types of gatherings are slated to be allowed again in late January, according to the Channel 12 report.
When pressed on demonstrations potentially being allowed in the first stage despite the large crowds they have been drawing, Davidovitch and Barbash said that mass protests must adhere to physical distancing and other measures.
But what about the upcoming flu season? Could influenza put a wrench in the phased exit strategy from the coronavirus closure as Israel is forced to battle both diseases simultaneously?
Israel appears to have plenty of doses, buying a record 4 million shots, nearly double the number of vaccinations purchased in 2019.
Rapid testing is expected to available during the winter months, allowing for quick detection between the coronavirus and influenza and other upper respiratory illnesses. On Friday, it was reported that a 30-second coronavirus detection test being developed by India and Israel will be ready soon.
“We might not have the same level of flu that we had in previous years because of the social distancing and the masks,” Barbash said. “So, it’s possible that the severity of the flu this year is going to be milder as happened in Australia and other parts of the globe that already experienced the winter.”