Israel is once again close to reaching herd immunity against the coronavirus, Head of Public Health Services Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis said at the Jerusalem Post Conference on Tuesday.
“When we looked at the third wave, we left it behind although a third of our population – mostly children – were not vaccinated,” she recalled. “At the time we did not know it, but in retrospect, our numbers were down because there were enough vaccinated people to get to herd immunity. This protected the children.”
After the Delta variant became dominant, the situation changed.
“The infectiousness of Delta is higher and therefore the level needed for herd immunity is higher,” Alroy-Preis said. “We do not know what the exact number is but I believe that what we are seeing now is that Israel is again getting to a place where enough people are vaccinated or recovered to reach herd immunity.”
During the fourth wave which started around mid-June, more than half (55%) of the cases have been among children too young to be vaccinated and cases of serious post-COVID syndrome symptoms among the young have increased.
Alroy-Preis said that this characteristic of the fourth wave has represented the biggest challenge for health authorities.
“We want to have children back in school with in-person learning and back to their normal lives, but at the same time they are the ones who are not protected,” she noted. “Therefore, we need to be cautious and not run into decisions about isolations without testing if this would not increase infection among them.”
The official appeared to be referring to the Green Class outline, under which children who are exposed to a verified patient are not required to quarantine but rather to be tested every day and can continue to attend school provided they are not infected.
The outline was only supposed to be implemented next week, after the end of a pilot in a limited number of schools to check its safety, but Prime Minister Naftali Bennett pushed health officials for it to commence already on Sunday in cities with low morbidity to reduce the number of children and parents forced to stay at home.
“I hope that the things that are happening now in schools are not going to derail us [from the goal of herd immunity],” Alroy-Preis said. “I think that we are really getting to it.”
When asked about Bennett’s management of the coronavirus crisis compared to that of his predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu, she said that it is the responsibility of the government representatives to make decision that take into account the different elements of running a country, after listening to the advice of health professionals.
However, Alroy-Preis rejected the idea that the fourth wave has been left behind without any major restrictions and any major shortcoming.
“Some 1,400 people died,” she said. “There is benefit in keeping the economy open and there is some cost to it.”
In order to prevent or manage a fifth wave, Alroy-Preis noted that it is very important to maintain the infrastructure built to fight COVID, including testing and epidemiological investigation capabilities.
“We have to be prepared,” she said. “What we saw between the third and the fourth wave is that the virus was expanding exponentially, but our responses were actually very slow, so we need to take this into consideration.”
She stressed that contrary to what happens with other bodies within the government – for example related to security threats – the Health Ministry does not have tools to make decisions fast.
“I think another point we need to learn is to watch the borders,” the health official said. “We know that the borders are the place from which the next variant probably will come, so we need to control them better.
“Therefore, we cannot really afford losing the PCR before boarding a plane and after landing,” she said. “At some point we may need to ask for another PCR test three or four days after arrival. We also need better enforcement of isolation: The fourth wave spread mainly from children who came back from traveling and did not quarantine.”