Is Israel on the verge of a new COVID-19 outbreak?

Israel Health Ministry official says to 'remain calm' amongst worries of a possible future coronavirus outbreak.

A healthcare worker holds a syringe and vaccine vial against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Cairo, Egypt March 4, 2021. (photo credit: REUTERS/MOHAMED ABD EL GHANY)
A healthcare worker holds a syringe and vaccine vial against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Cairo, Egypt March 4, 2021.
After a year of COVID-19, it is easy to hit the panic button when it comes to mini-outbreaks. But such brief surges are “completely expected,” and it is not yet time to raise a red flag, health experts told The Jerusalem Post.
The audience at a performance in Beit She’an last Thursday was asked to enter quarantine after discovering that an attendee was coronavirus-positive, raising concerns.
In addition, there were outbreaks – some large – at several schools.
“As long as we have travel inside and outside of Israel, then we will have outbreaks among people, vaccinated and unvaccinated, and primarily among students,” Prof. Eyal Leshem, director of the Center for Travel Medicine and Tropical Diseases at Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer, told the Post.
The headline should be that “this is not surprising,” stressed Prof. Eran Segal, a computational biologist from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot.
And Tomer Lotan, outgoing head of the Magen Israel program, said he does not expect these latest outbreaks to lead to any change in Health Ministry policy.
This is despite concerns that the more virulent “Delta” variant, formerly known as the Indian variant, appears to be the cause of at least some of the recent cases.
The Delta variant is 60% more contagious than the British variant and causes 2.5 more hospitalizations, the Coronavirus  National Information and Knowledge Center said in a report Sunday morning. It called for “resolute action” to prevent the variant from entering the country and spreading.
However, health officials said the Pfizer vaccine, with which more than 5.4 million Israelis are inoculated, appears to be highly effective against the Delta variant, in particular, with stopping severe disease.
The Pfizer vaccine was at least 88% effective against symptomatic disease from the variant two weeks after the second dose, compared with 93% effectiveness against the British variant and 95% against the original strain, a study published by Public Health England showed.
As such, these latest outbreaks “tell us that this is what the future is going to look like,” Leshem said. “People who are unvaccinated can get infected, and people who are fully vaccinated could get infected but will be protected from severe disease.”
With more than 90% of Israelis over the age of 50 inoculated, “these outbreaks do not pose a risk to public health,” he said.
Segal said: “So, I think we should follow the developments, but otherwise, we are business as usual.”
However, it should be noted that among the people infected during the recent outbreaks, as many as one-third were vaccinated, according to Cyrille Cohen, head of the immunotherapy laboratory at Bar-Ilan University.
As such, the country should consider taking some additional steps to protect Israel from a new coronavirus wave, he said.
“We need to be much more stringent at the border,” Cohen told the Post, adding that travelers entering Israel should take not only a PCR test with results that are delivered within 24 hours, but also a rapid test to try to screen anyone who might be vaccinated but is carrying the virus.
“People can infect others while they are waiting for the PCR test answer,” he said. “Rapid tests can filter out 80% to 90% of the cases.”
Cohen also recommended implementing mandatory testing a few days after arrival to catch any cases that might get through at the airport.
The Health Ministry is considering changing the recommendation regarding vaccinating 12- to 15-year-olds, a spokeswoman for coronavirus coordinator Prof. Nachman Ash told the Post. “We may move to a stronger recommendation for children,” she confirmed.
“I think if we cleared the vaccine in terms of safety, and we are confident, and I believe this is the case, then it is beneficial to get kids vaccinated,” Segal told the Post. While most children experience only mild symptoms, some experience unpleasant and even long-term effects from COVID-19, he added.
On Sunday, Clalit reported a near 100% increase in 12- to 15-year-olds requesting to get the jab. The more children who are vaccinated, the less disease will spread.
To date, around 35% of eligible Israelis are not vaccinated against COVID. Leshem said he hopes these outbreaks will encourage people who are not vaccinated to get inoculated.
The results of the genetic sequencing of the recent outbreaks are still being completed. When the results are in, the country will be smarter “to know if we have to adjust policies,” Lotan said.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett held an emergency meeting on coronavirus Sunday night, where officials were expected to roll out tighter masking and other restrictions at the airport.
“If we see more and more schools joining the situation and get more evidence of the Delta variant [spreading], then we would need to be more concerned,” Lotan said. “But this is not the case now. For now, let’s keep cool and calm.”