Start of school year may yet be delayed by virus, Health Ministry official warns

The Health Ministry could still oppose opening the school year as scheduled on September 1, and a final decision will be made at a meeting in the coming days based on COVID-19 infection rates, a ministry representative said Thursday.

Some officials have been pushing to delay the start of the school year by a month as the Delta variant has sparked a resurgence in serious virus cases.

Ilana Gans, who specializes in public health at the ministry, told the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee that although the Health Ministry backs the current plan to open the school year on September 1, that could change if infection rates don’t drop.

The ministry, she stressed, “wants to open the year as planned with all the means to prevent as much as possible the arrival of infected children [to school premises].

“We saw during the [last] school year the damage cause by not returning children to schools,” Gans said, referring to the long months of distanced learning for Israeli students.

Gans’s remarks came after acting committee chair Blue and White MK Eitan Ginzburg warned that the return of children to school on September 1 would “definitely lead to infections and that harms the strategy of the Health Ministry to buy time” for a vaccine booster campaign to take effect.

Delaying the start of studies until October would put the ministry “in a much better position,” he suggested.

Officials say the vast majority of those suffering serious bouts of COVID-19 are unvaccinated, though breakthrough cases, often mild, among the vaccinated have become relatively common as immunity has waned, an issue Israel is seeking to remedy with the booster shot campaign.

Booster shots are currently available to all Israelis over the age of 30. Health Ministry data cited Wednesday by Channel 12 news indicates that the booster ups protection against severe illness from the virus to 97 percent.

On Monday the top-level coronavirus cabinet decided that the school year will begin as scheduled, despite calls to delay it due to the recent virus surge. As part of the decision, ministers agreed that eligible students, aged 12 and over, will be vaccinated on campus during school hours, subject to parental approval.

Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton had opposed the plan, but later agreed to it in a bid to avoid a delay in the opening of the school year.

After driving down infections to barely more than a dozen new cases each day in June, Israel has since seen a resurgence of COVID-19 infections with 8,800 cases diagnosed on Wednesday. The figure was lower than that for the previous two days, when the number of new cases was around 10,000.

Figures showed the number of seriously ill patients was 680 and that 13 people had died the day before. The government has set the number of seriously ill cases as one of the key indicators of the severity of the current surge in infections amid fears that hospitals could become overwhelmed with patients in need of treatment. A plan has been approved to fund thousands more medical positions after health officials earlier this month predicted that by mid-September the number of seriously ill could hit 2,400. However, the swift rise in such cases appears to have somewhat slowed down in recent days.

Some fear that the return to school will further increase the already high infection rates, outpacing the speed at which vaccine booster shots can be given. So far, 1,772,367 Israelis have had three vaccine shots, and 5,459,308 have had at least two shots. There are 5,933,086 people who have had at least one dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

A campaign to perform mass serological tests to find COVID-19 antibodies in children aged 3-12 was halted for a day on Wednesday after a chaotic first few days that saw computer systems crash, long delays in getting tests, and many parents giving up on having their children tested. The testing, which resumed in some communities Thursday, is aimed at finding which children could be exempted from quarantine time after exposure to infected people, enabling them to stay in school.

The virus wave has been blamed on the highly contagious Delta variant, brought into the country by travelers who did not properly quarantine.

Since the start of the pandemic last year 1,024,100 people in Israel were diagnosed with COVD-19. The death toll by Thursday was 6,909.

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