Gov’t to re-examine decision to open schools despite decrease in COVID-19

Health expert: ‘It is an illusion to think you are secure’

A view of an empty Gan Sacher in Jerusalem is seen during the coronavirus lockdown on Israel's  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
A view of an empty Gan Sacher in Jerusalem is seen during the coronavirus lockdown on Israel's
Parents hoping to send their children to preschool on Sunday may end up being disappointed, after a study by the Gertner Institute found that opening them may be premature, despite positive new data from the Health Ministry.
The number of people who have recovered from the novel coronavirus as of Wednesday outnumbered the number of people infected for the first time, according to the ministry. Some 7,386 people are infected while 8,233 have recovered.
The decision of the government earlier this week to open preschool through 3rd grade was made pending the results of the study, whose findings were sent to ministers late Wednesday night after the Independence Day holiday. The first findings of the study show that children do get infected and infect others, although less so.
Some senior officials are now recommending that only grade schools open, since they are more likely to be able to adhere to guidelines set by the Health Ministry.
Other issues include whether students in grades 11 and 12 will ultimately attend school to prepare for their matriculation exams, as originally approved by the government; what to do about teachers who are older or have pre-existing medical conditions; and whether afterschool programs can open to accommodate working parents.
Officials are expected to meet over the next 48 hours and a final decision is supposed to be made by Friday. At this stage, something extreme would have to happen for schools not to open as expected.
Thousands have expressed their unwillingness to send their children to school on Sunday out of concern that the Education Ministry will not be able to guarantee the health of their children. The parents signed petitions online calling for schools to not reopen yet.
“The number of sick is going down, which is good,” according to Prof. Gabi Barbash, director-general emeritus of the Health Ministry. But he told The Jerusalem Post that he is “not impressed” by the number of recovered patients.
We have been battling the virus for nearly three months,” he said. “Obviously, as time goes by, more people recover.”
More important is the average number of newly infected patients per day – 106 in the last 24 hours – their distribution across Israel and their condition. Some 115 patients were in serious condition on Wednesday, according to the Health Ministry, including 90 who were intubated. So far, 215 people have died from the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
An 11-year-old with coronavirus who was intubated is now breathing on her own, Rambam Medical Center in Haifa has reported. At the same time, a 16-year-old with multi-systemic failure and a heart condition was admitted to the center. He tested positive for coronavirus, causing some medical personnel to enter isolation.
Known coronavirus hot spots are showing positive trends. Although Jerusalem and Bnei Brak continue to have the highest infection rates – 3,421 and 2,813 respectively – the number of new patients per day is declining. Bnei Brak only saw a 1.2% increase in the number of sick patients in the last three days; Jerusalem saw a 2.9% increase.
But Barbash said there are suspected red zones that are not being properly monitored and that if enough resources are not dedicated there, Israel could be surprised.
“It is an illusion to think you are secure if one of these communities is not secured,” he told the Post.
He mentioned east Jerusalem, a handful of haredi (ultra-Orthodox) neighborhoods and Bedouin cities and towns as potential hot spots, adding that Israel is failing to test its migrant workers.
Singapore saw a rapid spread of coronavirus among migrant workers and was forced last week to quarantine 20,000 of them – people who were living in close and unhygienic quarters.
“It caused a recurrence,” Barbash said, and questioned why the Health Ministry was not learning from the Asian country.
To date, some 360,000 people have been screened for the novel coronavirus and 15,782 (4.4%) have tested positive. The ministry reported that it had conducted around 10,500 tests each day for the last two days, despite an ability to do 15,000 per day. The ministry defended the discrepancy, saying that people are not coming to get checked.
Barbash said that the resources should be re-allocated rather than wasted.
In Jerusalem, for example, a report by the municipality showed that there were 6,400 people screened between April 21 and 27, but only 1,100 (17%) in east Jerusalem. Arab Israelis make up 38% of Jerusalem’s population. So far, 150 residents of east Jerusalem have been diagnosed with the virus.
Several Bedouin towns showed a sharp rise in cases in the last 72 hours: Hura, for example,  showed 128% growth from 37 infected people to 66; Ararara in the Negev: zero to 17, 13% growth; Sakhnin in the north: seven to 17, 13%; and Tayibe in central Israel: nine to 47, 12%.
Barbash said that he is “quite worried about the monitoring capability of the Health Ministry,” which decided to move molecular testing from Magen David Adom to the Health Funds on May 1. Although Barbash called the move “sensible,” he said that, “I would not dare to do something like that, to transfer the torch exactly when we are taking such a big step in the community and we need to continually follow up. This, in my mind, endangers the whole process.”
The country was put on a 27-hour Independence Day lockdown. Police set up 43 checkpoints and patrolled the streets to ensure that the public adhered to Health Ministry guidelines. Police fined more than a thousand people for gathering illegally in public spaces, close to 150 for being in forbidden places and more than 120 who were not wearing masks.
On Thursday, the restriction of doing sporting activity more than 500 meters from home is expected to be lifted, although there continues to be confusion around this point. People can leave their homes to shop, go to the hairdresser or even exercise, but there is still technically a prohibition against journeying more than 100 meters for any other reason. The Health Ministry is expected to discuss lifting travel restrictions entirely by the weekend.
The government is already discussing the upcoming Lag B’Omer holiday and has announced it will limit the number of bonfires across the country, including on Mount Meron where tens of thousands of Jews traditionally flock each year to pay tribute to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai at his gravesite.
The government decided that only three bonfires will be lit on Mount Meron: One each for Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews and one for the Religious-Zionist community.
The government is also considering opening shopping malls under certain restrictions, including limiting the number of people per meter and requiring shoppers to download an application that will track their whereabouts so they can be informed if they come into contact with a sick person.
Health and government officials will also finalize those decisions in the coming days.
“We have to be very careful in the next 10 to 20 days to see what is going on and if there is a response to the steps we took,” Barbash told the Post, who said that the country has gone from “panic to complacency” and he thinks it needs to be somewhere in between.
“We know we will have an increase in the number of patients,” Barbash said.