COVID-19 ‘R’ rise might be due to technicality, health official says

“As long as the R rate remains below 1, and even more so below 0.8, I do not think there is a reason to worry, and we can continue to open up our economy,” Public Health Services head said.

A MAGEN DAVID ADOM medical worker tests people for coronavirus at a mobile site in Jerusalem last week. (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
A MAGEN DAVID ADOM medical worker tests people for coronavirus at a mobile site in Jerusalem last week.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
The coronavirus reproduction rate continued to rise on Tuesday, when it stood at 0.78, after going as low as 0.55 some 10 days earlier. However, health experts said the development might have been caused by a technicality and that as long as the rate remains below 1, the pandemic is still considered in recession, albeit more slowly.
“As long as the R rate remains below 1, and even more so below 0.8, I do not think there is a reason to worry, and we can continue to open up our economy,” Public Health Services head Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis said Tuesday during a press conference. The increase might be due to the lower number of tests administered during Passover, she added.
The reproduction rate, or R rate, measures how many people each virus carrier infects on average. Experts calculate it going backward to some 10 days before, meaning the figure released by the Health Ministry on Tuesday reflects the situation on March 26.
According to Prof. Nadav Davidovitch, an epidemiologist and head of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s School of Public Health, the development, considered in conjunction with the general situation, is not especially concerning. The slowing down of the vaccination drive might be potentially much more dangerous, he said.
“It’s always important to look at the combination of different indicators because no indicator is enough by itself,” he added. “The context and the trends are also crucial: A car can accelerate or decelerate while it is traveling at 10 kph or at 90, and there is a difference.”
The numbers of new daily cases and serious patients, as well as the rate of tests returning a positive result, have all gone down dramatically, Davidovitch said.
“For this reason, a small rise in the R rate concerns me less,” he said.
Some 375 new cases of the novel coronavirus were reported in Israel on Monday, with 0.7% of tests returning positive, the Health Ministry reported Tuesday morning. While the figures mark an increase from the day before, when some 194 cases were identified and the 0.6% of tests returned positive, the number of tests performed was also significantly higher, 53,000 compared with 31,000 on Sunday. Israel has registered no more than 500 new cases every day since March 26.
Of the infected, 319 were in serious condition on Tuesday morning. There were 406 on the previous Tuesday and 498 the week before that. The death toll stood at 6,253, with five people succumbing to the virus on Monday.
However, there is a reason to be concerned, Davidovitch said. After Israel established itself as a vaccination powerhouse, over the past few weeks its inoculation drive has slowed down, and one million eligible Israelis have not been inoculated yet, he said.
Some 5.27 million Israelis have received at least one dose of the vaccine, and 4.86 million have received both. Over the past few days, only 10,000 people a day or fewer have received the first shot and 20,000 or fewer the second. In the second half of January, Israel was inoculating more than 200,000 people per day.
“We need to remember that we still have more than 200,000 people over 50 who are not vaccinated,” Davidovitch said. “Unfortunately, in the last weeks, maybe also because of the effect of Passover and because many people now feel that COVID is behind us, the pace has slowed down significantly.”
“The authorities have to make an effort in the communities to bring more people to vaccinate, especially in the Arab sector, where there are still pockets with a very low vaccination rate,” he said.
According to Davidovitch, these efforts are very important, especially ahead of the vaccination campaign to inoculate children, which is expected to begin as early as May, after the US Food and Drug Administration grants its authorization to the Pfizer vaccine.
“We will have to deal once again with vaccine hesitancy and fake news,” he said.
In addition, Davidovitch said now is the time to refocus on contact tracing.
“Now that the new cases are back to being a few hundred a day and not thousands, it can be really effective, also in order to track variants,” he said.