Reacting to reports that the number of COVID-19 cases has grown substantially in China, the Health Ministry in Jerusalem has announced what measures it is taking to prevent an influx of infected people from coming to Israel from the world’s most populous country.
Director-General Prof. Nachman Ash said that the ministry has studied the situation in China and found that the increase in cases is from the Omicron variant, so there are no plans now to change policy and test travelers coming from China.
This is in line with the approach of Prof. Hagai Levine – a leading epidemiologist, public health physician and faculty member of the Hebrew University-Hadassah Braun School of Public Health and Community Medicine and chairman of the Israel Association of Public Health Physicians – who urged all who arrive here from China be tested for the new coronavirus variant.
“I don’t know how many come from China, but if they are all tested, we would be able to know if it is new variant aside from Omicron,” he said. “Japan has reported an increase in cases there. There is a possibility that in 2023, there will be growth in the number of cases in Israel. We have to prepare.”
An unknown situation in China
The Chinese themselves don’t know, Levine told The Jerusalem Post in an interview, “and the media are doing buildup about China, so it’s hard to know what is true. If it spreads from there, it will affect many people’s health and [also] world trade. It’s hard to get accurate data on China; I myself am in touch with Chinese epidemiologists, but it’s difficult to find out the truth.”
Beijing has not reported actual numbers of infected people or provided information on any new or old variants, meaning they could be releasing a new virulent Covid wave of unknown deadliness on the world. Alternatively, China could just be dealing with old variants against which many people around the world have been protected from serious complications, thanks to the new Omicron vaccination.
“The COVID-19 situation is nevertheless alarming,” Levine warned. “There is a need for monitoring and preparation for the possibility of a significant increase in morbidity and mortality in Israel. Those arriving now from an outbreak area should be tested here for the virus. But the best preparation is investment in the health system and public health infrastructure. The incoming government must act carefully together with the public.”
US reinstating testing
UNLIKE ISRAEL, the US is reinstating COVID-19 testing for flights arriving from China. Virologists in the developed world are watching nervously to see how China’s abrupt decision to drop some of its toughest COVID-19 restrictions, including scrapping quarantine rules for travelers, may affect variants and their global spread as some countries increase precautionary measures.
The Health Ministry this week told the four Israeli public health funds that it is halting government testing for the virus and handing the responsibility over to them. There also will be no quarantine rules from next week.
Levine said that Moshe Bar Siman Tov, the former senior Treasury official who was Health Ministry director-general under then-health minister Yaakov Litzman, will apparently be named director-general again to replace Ash when Shas Party MK Arye Deri becomes the minister of both the Health and Interior ministries.
Bar Siman Tov has recently been Deri’s adviser on health matters. “Bar Siman Tov promised as director-general that there won’t be any more hospital patients in beds in the corridors. He has to keep his promise,” Levine said. “Every winter, the medical centers have 150% occupancy. More medical staffers plus more hospitalization at home and prevention of infection must be implemented.”
He also suggested that every local authority in Israel should set up health units and take this into account. “If Health Minister Deri and Interior Minister Deri can sit together and do this, it will be beneficial.”
Nearly half of the passengers on two recent flights from China to Milan tested positive for COVID-19, according to Italian health officials. About 38% of passengers on one flight into Milan’s Malpensa Airport tested positive for COVID-19, as did about 52% of those on a second flight.
At the end of the 50th week of 2022 in the pooled EU/European Economic Area (EEA) that includes Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway, the notification rate of COVID-19 cases among people aged 65 years and older increased by 7% compared with the previous week, reaching 43% of the maximum value reported during the pandemic. An increase in reported cases in more than half of countries in the period to the last week of the year is being forecasted.
THE IMPACT of this increased transmission is being seen in hospitals: Eleven of the 21 countries with data on hospital or ICU admissions/occupancy up to week 50 reported an increasing trend in at least one of these indicators compared to the previous week. Four countries reported increases in deaths, although the pooled EU/EEA death rate decreased by 11% compared to the previous week, with 2,009 deaths reported in the past week.
Increased inter-generational mixing during the year-end holiday season is likely to increase the exposure of vulnerable groups to respiratory viruses. The holidays have also brought about changes in reporting, testing and healthcare-seeking behavior, which will complicate the interpretation of epidemiological data submitted in the coming weeks.
Japan, India and Taiwan have introduced measures to prevent an influx of cases as experts say lack of data makes it difficult to assess risk.
China’s decision on Monday to drop quarantine for overseas visitors from January 8 has made ascertaining the spread and severity of Covid more difficult than ever as Beijing has stopped publishing daily case numbers and has discontinued mass testing.
The decision has prompted concerns about the potential for new variants to spread beyond China’s borders. Japan and India are among the countries that have introduced measures to prevent an influx of cases.