'We’re in a really good place': is Israel nearing the Covid endgame?

Author: Oliver Holmes and Quique Kierszenbaum in Jerusalem
Source: The Guardian
Date: Fri 2 Apr 2021

At the peak of Israel’s Covid vaccination drive, the halls of a huge basketball arena in Jerusalem were filled with people, each anxiously waiting up to two hours until their number was called. More than 3,000 people a day were being vaccinated here in January.
On Monday, no more than 15 people lingered around long rows of empty chairs. Some barely had time to sit down before they were called to receive a jab. “They wait about 10 seconds,” said Shani Luvaton, the head nurse at the vaccination centre. She only uses half her booths for just a few hundred people a day.
Among the adult population, only vaccine-hesitant stragglers, roughly 1 million people, are yet to be inoculated. “Everyone who wanted to get vaccinated has already come,” said Luvaton.
Behind her workstation, boxes of syringes and disposable gloves have been piled up in a kiosk that used to sell snacks to people attending games. Special fridges containing the Pfizer/BioNTech vials sit under signs that offer deals for mustard-covered hotdogs and Coca-Cola.
Fast food may be sold here again very soon. On some days during the past two weeks, the vaccination centre had to close early because basketball games with limited crowd sizes have restarted. The country is slowly getting back to life, said Luvaton.
Israel, which has run the world’s fastest Covid vaccination campaign, may be reaching a point other countries take months or years to get to: an endgame scenario for the pandemic.
The country of 9 million people has administered both shots to more than half its population and infection rates have consistently dropped. That has continued even though daily life has returned almost completely to a pre-pandemic situation.
In January, during the country’s third and most intense wave of Covid-19, there were 10,000 confirmed infections a day at one point. But now the total number of active cases is less than that figure. According to health ministry statistics, fewer than 130 new infections were confirmed on Sunday.
Eran Segal, a computational biologist at Israel’s Weizmann Institute, said in a presentation to the Stanford department of medicine that Israel’s coronavirus death rate had dropped by more than 90% since the mid-January peak.
He compared what happened after Israel’s second wave last year – before vaccines were available – with the third wave this year, which occurred while the country was vaccinating.
After a lockdown during the second wave, infection rates soon increased and never dropped until another lockdown was imposed. But after the third wave, “the effect of the vaccines kicked in”, he said. The R number (the growth of infections) has since dropped to its lowest level in the pandemic, he said, even though the economy is more open than it has been for a year.
Entry to gyms, hotels, theatres and concerts is available to people who have a “green pass”, an app that proves people have been fully inoculated or have presumed immunity after contracting the disease.
In the coastal city of Tel Aviv, beaches have been packed for the Passover holiday. When the sun sets, thousands of people head to bars and restaurants. While indoor locations are supposed to scan people’s green pass, which has a QR code, many bars appear to assume their customers are immunised.
The green pass, launched last month and eyed as a potential strategy by countries such as Britain, has been credited with helping motivate unvaccinated Israelis to get the jab. At the Jerusalem arena, Avishag Buskila, 26, said the app was why she finally decided to do so.
“My parents were divided. My dad got vaccinated three months ago but my mum wanted to wait and see,” she said. Buskila, a law student, said she wanted to wait, but her university campus will open next week to students with green passes and she did not want to miss out.
“If I’m not vaccinated, I can’t go back to school. I’m sorry I didn’t do it earlier.”
If clinical trials show it is safe for under-16s to get vaccinated, Israel is expected to start inoculating that demographic. However, with the vast majority of at-risk and older people already immunised and infection rates steadily dropping, the sense of urgency is lessening.
The main visual sign that Israel remains in a pandemic situation is the masks, which remain mandatory indoors in shops and outdoors everywhere. Still, many people have stopped wearing them.
Sharon Alroy-Preis, the head of Israel’s public health department, told local television the government was considering scrapping the rule on wearing masks outside.
However, she said the health ministry remained concerned about more lethal or vaccine-resistant Covid variants. For that reason, Israel has kept tight restrictions on incoming international travellers, limiting the number allowed in. “We’re in a really good place and it’s important to protect this achievement,” said Alroy-Preis.
Adi Niv-Yagoda, an expert in health policy at Tel Aviv University and a member of the health ministry’s Covid-19 advisory panel, said he believed Israel may have almost reached an endpoint in the pandemic.
“We still have some [Covid] positive people in the country but it could be possible to get to zero infected in the community,” he said. “But we never know what might be the next variant to attack us.”
He said that while there was a lot of focus on variants entering the country via the airport, there was a similar risk that virus mutations could arrive from the Palestinian territories. “There is no control [of the virus] in those areas,” he said.
Israel has faced international condemnation over its decision not to vaccinate millions of Palestinians who live under its military control. During the past couple of months, the government agreed to donate several thousand doses. It also completed a programme to immunise 100,000 Palestinian workers who regularly enter Israel and Jewish settlements for work.
Still, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are expected to spend further weeks or months under strict restrictions and are experiencing relatively high infection rates. They are partly relying on a World Health Organization initiative to deliver vital doses.
Niv-Yagoda said it was “in Israel’s interest to vaccinate the Palestinians and to help them”. He was encouraged that the government was taking some steps even though they were “a little late”.
Authorities in Israel should focus on making sure the spread of variants is caught early, he said. That could be done by monitoring places where large numbers of people gather, such as schools and sports stadiums.
While he said a vaccine-resistant mutation was not inevitable, now was the time to prepare.
“The big lesson of this pandemic is that we don’t know everything,” he said, “because the virus was constantly surprising us.”
Link: 'We’re in a really good place': is Israel nearing the Covid endgame? | Coronavirus | The Guardian