COVID spread appears to ebb, fueling optimism for end of Delta blitz

Israel recorded nearly 8,000 new coronavirus cases Thursday, but signs that the spread of the virus were slowing continued to feed optimism that the country may be on the road back to recovery following a significant bout with the Delta variant.

However, Health Ministry data released Friday morning showed that more than half of all COVID cases were still coming from school-age children. Another 150 new infections were found in Israelis returning from a New Year’s pilgrimage to Uman, Ukraine, with authorities wary of even higher numbers from the steady flow of returnees, and attempts by those carrying the virus to game the system with fake bills of health.

“There is room for optimism,” Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz wrote on Facebook Friday. “The virus is going from a spreading trend to one of slowing. It’s too early to celebrate, and we need to be very careful, but if we continue to act the same as we have been, we can pass this wave.”

The tally of 7,813 new cases Thursday was the lowest number for a non-holiday weekday since August 18, a sign of hope that the virus may be ebbing after weeks of nearly uncontrollable spread. The rate of spread also slowed to an R value of 0.8, down from over 1 — meaning spread was expanding — just days earlier.

The last time the Health Ministry reported a basic reproduction number below 1, before it dropped to 0.95 on Wednesday, was in early June, before new daily cases began to surge.

The number of patients hospitalized in serious condition also dropped slightly, to 672, though the death toll climbed to 7,319 victims since the start of the pandemic. In the last week, 197 deaths from the virus have been reported by the ministry.

Of those testing positive on Thursday, 4,173 of them were school-aged children, ministry data showed, highlighting the extent to which schools have served as a vector for the spread of the virus. Another 233 teachers and staff were sick.

Students arrive to the classroom on the first day of the new academic year, at Orot Etzion School in the West Bank settlement of Efrat, September 1, 2021. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

Just over half of the 79,799 active cases nationwide — 40,566 — belong to school children, with another 114,680 in mandatory isolation.

Israel pushed ahead with opening schools on September 1, despite fears that it could fan the spread of the virus, especially among kids too young to be vaccinated.

Numbers put out by the Health Ministry Friday showed that the vast majority of those hospitalized in serious condition were unvaccinated. Of those under 60, those without a booster shot were nearly three times as likely to wind up seriously ill, and those without any vaccination were around 10 times as likely. For those over 60, having a booster made you ten times less likely than a vaccinated person to be in serious condition, and 40 times less likely than an unvaccinated person.

Uman worries

Of 196 cases found in those returning from abroad on Thursday, 156 were among pilgrims traveling back to Israel from a shrine in Ukraine that has become a hub for tens of thousands of Jewish worshippers over the Rosh Hashanah holiday, which ended Wednesday.

Jewish men in the street near the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov in Uman, on eve of the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah, September 6, 2021. (Flash90)

Army Radio reported that 117 people who returned from Ukraine after the holiday have been called in for questioning over suspicions that they faked documentation showing they did not have COVID when they were in fact sick. Dozens of people suspected of presenting fake papers were nabbed Thursday and will likely face charges.

“The Israeli government takes a very serious view of patients who fraudulently enter Israel by falsifying documents and deliberately spread disease, which constitutes an irresponsible act of harming public peace,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s office said Thursday.

Each year, tens of thousands of pilgrims, mostly from Israel, gather for Rosh Hashanah in Uman, the burial place of Rabbi Nachman, an 18th-century luminary and founder of the Bratslav Hasidic movement. More pilgrims also arrive from other Jewish communities around the world.

This year, some 30,000 pilgrims made the journey, and a framework was established that envisioned them wearing face masks at gatherings, among other rules on social distancing intended to prevent the virus from spreading at the events. However, media reports showed many pilgrims without masks along with crowding, including outside testing facilities.

Illustrative — Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men carrying a scroll and luggage arrive at Ben Gurion airport on September 9, 2021, after spending the Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) celebrations in the central Ukranian town of Uman (Jack Guez / AFP)

“We tried, I can’t say we succeeded but we tried.” one pilgrim told Channel 12 of the rules.

National coronavirus czar Salman Zarka traveled to Uman along with MDA chief Eli Bean to oversee the arrangements. However, a video showed Zarka being heckled by pilgrims who protested what they said was his closer watch on the religious event, compared to some recent secular gatherings in Israel.

In an effort to intercept as many infected people as possible before they traveled back to Israel, the Magen David Adom emergency service, under the auspices of the Prime Minister’s Office and the Foreign Ministry, set up a virus testing station in Uman that could process 15,000 samples and give results in half an hour.

However, MDA reported that barely 2,000 people came to be tested, with the majority of pilgrims therefore preferring to use local testing facilities. Among the MDA tests, the positive rate was over 13 percent, a figure over two and half times higher than the current rate among Israel’s population.

Testing lines

Authorities have also vowed to tackle long lines at COVID swab sites, which have appeared unable to handle the large volume of Israelis seeking tests. Some have reported waiting in cars for three hours to get tested.

Health care workers take test samples at a drive-thru complex in Jerusalem, on September 09, 2021 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Bennett said Thursday he was pumping more resources into the testing system, amid claims that the government declined a request to fund more testing stations weeks ago.

“We warned ahead of [Rosh Hashanah] that the system needs to be seriously beefed up, there was insufficient organization,” MK Gilad Kariv (Labor) told the Kan broadcaster Friday. “This is a mega [issue], the question is how we quickly deal with this problem that has cropped up.”

The Health Ministry on Wednesday instructed testing sites to continue operating late into the night to meet the high demand. Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz encouraged the public to get tested at rapid test locations, where less traffic was reported (and where tests are not free for people who are eligible for the vaccine but have chosen to forgo it).

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