‘Israel needs better coronavirus communication’

Dr. Talya Miron-Shatz says more refined decision-making will improve public health

Israeli students at the Orot Etzion school in Efrat wear protective face masks as they return to school for the first time since the outbreak of the coronavirus, May 3, 2020 (photo credit: GERSHON ELINSON/FLASH90)
Israeli students at the Orot Etzion school in Efrat wear protective face masks as they return to school for the first time since the outbreak of the coronavirus, May 3, 2020
(photo credit: GERSHON ELINSON/FLASH90)
The government should create a responsible exit strategy for the COVID-19 pandemic and convey it to its citizens, according to Dr. Talya Miron-Shatz, founding director of the Center for Medical Decision Making at Ono Academic College.
“The public needs assurances, and we are not getting them,” she told The Jerusalem Post.
Whereas the government was forced to act fast when it learned about the coronavirus threat, “there is no plan now, and the government had plenty of time to think about it,” Miron-Shatz said.
Dr. Talya Miron-Shat. (Photo credit: Courtesy)Dr. Talya Miron-Shat. (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Over the last two months, the country and the rest of the world have been studying COVID-19 and gathering data, and now is the time to use that data for making decisions, she said.
If at the onset of the pandemic Israel shut down the country “like a “sledgehammer,” now it must “use a scalpel,” Miron-Shatz said.
“We need more refined decision-making,” she said, which could upset some parts of the population but would help public health. 
A Health Ministry report showed that on Friday there were 99 new patients in Jerusalem, 29 in Bnei Brak and 18 in Beit Shemesh, which all have large haredi (ultra-Orthodox) populations. For comparison, there were no more than two new patients in any single predominantly secular Jewish city.
“What does that tell me?” Miron-Shatz asked. “There is a big difference in population behavior – how well people are keeping the instructions, social distancing, maintaining hygiene. Maybe they are davening in close proximity? Maybe they are opening schools illegally?”
If these people take buses or work outside their neighborhoods, they risk spreading the virus and igniting a second wave of the pandemic, she said.
“This is where decision-making based on data comes in,” she said, adding that the government needs to decide to quarantine these areas even if there is an outcry.
“Outcry cannot determine policy,” Miron-Shatz said. “It’s their aggravation versus the Israeli economy tanking.”
The data also could have better driven Israel’s decision to open schools, she said.
On Sunday, the country opened classrooms to students in grades 1-3 and 11-12. However, research shows that children under 10 are less contagious and less likely to infect others. So why more children were not included in the country’s plans, Miron-Shatz asked.
Moreover, the program is “nonsensical” in that inviting preschoolers or kindergarteners to school in three shifts, each for two days per week, does little to help parents who need to return to work, she said.
“And why is the school day ending at 2 p.m.? Does COVID-19 need to nap?” Miron-Shatz asked. “What is the thought behind this? None.”
Many parents are not sending their children to school because they are scared they will become sick, and the country has done little to explain the precautions they are taking and how families will be protected, she said.
This same lack of communication can be seen in almost every aspect of the existing strategy, Miron-Shatz said. Hi-tech companies are told that a certain percentage of workers can return to the office, she said, adding: How? Which ones? In shifts?
“They have not been informed about what is happening and what they need to do to prepare – nothing,” she said. “They are opening the economy with the same sledgehammer approach with which they shut it down – boom, boom, boom – and it doesn’t work.”
In addition, Israel needs to be careful to keep emotion out of its decision-making, Miron-Shatz said. While the government responded quickly to the COVID-19 threat, it took too long to enact an effective policy to quarantine people coming from the United States, which allowed the virus to spread, she said.
Forty percent of all cases from abroad came from North America.
Moreover, “the country is in a very tricky political situation and was even more so when COVID-19 broke,” Miron-Shatz said, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took a myopic approach to coronavirus at the expense of everything else.
Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman put his “sacred religious values” above the good of the country, she said.
“I will quote Litzman: ‘How come you can walk your dog but you cannot daven with a minyan?’” Miron-Shatz said. “The question should have been, What do you have to do outside, and what can be done a different way.”
“Litzman placed the value of praying together over the value of maintaining public health, and we know the numbers in the ultra-Orthodox communities,” she said. “Someone had to put his foot down; it took too long.”
COVID-19 “is here to stay. It will be part of our life for at least a year,” Miron-Shatz said, adding: “The country deserves calming messages, backed with data, that it can listen to and trust.”