Health Experts Clash Over Lockdown as Israel Struggles to Contain New COVID Wave

YERUSHALAYIM -
Ziv hospital team members wear safety gear as they work in the coronavirus ward of Ziv Medical Center in Tzfas. (David Cohen/Flash90)

A dispute has emerged between health experts over a potential new lockdown next month as Israel struggles to contain a new surge of the coronavirus that has seen the national number of cases soar to tens of thousands.

At a Coronavirus Cabinet meeting convened Wednesday to discuss the rising rate of infection, medical experts warned of hospital capacity being exceeded and advocated for a lockdown in September to halt the spread of the more contagious Delta and Delta+ variants.

The lockdown was backed by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who said it may be necessary to introduce another lockdown around the time of the Yamim Nora’im in September.

The health experts present cited the lesser financial cost of closures during the three High Holidays, when most Israelis are off work, and said it could lead to a reduction of infection within 10 days and in serious cases within two to three weeks.

But other senior health experts were quick to reject the tentative plan.

“This is not the solution,” some experts said, adding that the Health Ministry was viewing the pandemic through a narrow lens, while ignoring other aspects of the crisis.

“Before taking any steps regarding issues of public health, there must be an assessment of the advantages versus possible damage,” said Prof. Amos Adler, head of the microbiology lab at Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital.

“Now that most of the at-risk population has been inoculated against COVID-19, it is clear from data obtained from around the world, as well as our own experience, that a lockdown would be ineffective,” he said.

“It would cause damage to all aspects of life,” Adler said. “Our advantage today is that we know that though the vaccine does not prevent infection, it prevents serious illness, as the data in the U.K. also indicates. Even if its efficacy is reduced, we are still better off than we were previously.”

Adler also rejected the premise that Israel will soon see 2,000 seriously ill COVID patients.

“How can we assume this will be worse than the third wave of the pandemic, before vaccines were available?” he said. “I think the government must consider economic aspects and adopt a wider perspective.”

The director of Rambam Health Care Campus in Haifa, Dr. Michael Halberthal, said the only lockdown that had been effective was during the first wave of the virus in 2020 and called the prospect of an additional one ridiculous.

“We saw that the second and even more so the third lockdown were ineffective because the public was not on board and there was zero enforcement. A lockdown can only work when there is public compliance or strict enforcement,” he said.

“I understand the rationale behind the government’s concerns and the efforts to slow the spread of the virus, but the response must be to bolster our hospitals’ ability to meet the needs posed by the virus and to impose and enforce quarantines on people arriving from abroad,” he said.

Prof. Dror Mevorach, who heads the coronavirus response at Hadassah Medical Center in Yerushalayim, agreed that the third lockdown imposed in January was ineffective and said that the spread of the virus was actually stopped by the vaccines.

“The solution is getting more people vaccinated against COVID-19,” he said.

The plan for a September lockdown was also met with resistance from some members of the Coronavirus Cabinet, although they were concerned with the timing of such a step.

Housing Minister Ze’ev Elkin said the lockdown should be imposed as early as mid-August before the number of serious cases increases further.

“That could ensure a shorter lockdown period,” Elkin said.

Health Ministry Director-General Nachman Ash said steps must be taken to prepare for the reopening of coronavirus wards and a new reduction in elective medical procedures.

Ash also said the ministry intended to bolster community health services to provide for COVID patients being treated at home.

He warned in an interview Thursday morning that a lockdown may be needed by the end of August.

“Right now, I would give a chance for the third dose and the other steps taken to work,” Ash told Army Radio. “We will need to make another decision in two or three weeks, maybe even in August.

“We don’t want to reach the point of a lockdown, but the reality may cause that to be a necessary step. We began the campaign for a third dose in order to reduce serious illness, and if we see a drop, it could be that it will prevent – or postpone – harsher steps.”

On Thursday, the Health Ministry reported 3,421 new coronavirus cases. 241 patients are listed in serious condition, 66 of whom are in critical condition, with 51 patients ventilated.

Meanwhile, the Delta coronavirus variant is spreading among Arab communities in Israel, fueled by recent returnees from Turkey.

In addition to the infections imported from Turkey, Ayman Saif, Israel’s coronavirus coordinator for the Arab sector, emphasized that there are unreported cases of coronavirus among the Arab population.