(August 19, 2020 / JNS) According to Israel’s coronavirus Coronavirus Project coordinator Ronni Gamzu, his main goal right now is to combat and contain the virus “without implementing a full lockdown on the country.”
“I am not sure we will succeed, but I am trying,” he said.
He made his remarks in a briefing to the foreign press this week. Gamzu, who in the past served as the Health Ministry director-general, was appointed to the role in July by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein.
He told reporters at the briefing that despite the country’s high morbidity rate, Israel has “the lowest [per capita COVID-19] mortality rate in the world.”
As of Aug. 19, there were 23,548 active COVID-19 cases in the country, with 410 Israelis in serious condition, 118 of whom were on respirators, according to Health Ministry data. A total of 711 Israelis have died as a result of the virus. Since the start of the pandemic, Israel has reported 96,753 cases.
Gamzu took over the reins in the midst of the country’s (still ongoing) “second wave” of the coronavirus pandemic, which began after Israel decided to reopen its schools and businesses in May.
He acknowledged that when Israel reopened its economy, “maybe it was too fast and maybe it wasn’t done in the most orderly fashion.”
Gamzu was adamant that the country’s battle against the pandemic was not solely a medical one.
“Containing [coronavirus] isn’t only a medical challenge, but also a challenge to the economy and a social challenge. We are balancing all of these aspects while taking action to keep people healthy,” he said.
Three-pronged attack to ‘cut the chain of transmission’
Gamzu laid out what he called his three-pronged “Shield of Israel” infrastructure plan to combat the virus.
First, he said, “you have to build the trust and confidence of your public. They have to understand what you are doing and know what the risks are, and what aren’t considered risks. Of course, wearing a mask and limiting gatherings is the way to defeat corona. But we must keep the trust up” between us and the public.
Secondly, Gamzu noted that Israel must “cut the chain of transmission.” He explained that this is done by contract tracing/questioning and quarantine.
“The minute someone has coronavirus symptoms, even before being tested, and is quarantined, we must start the contract tracing and questioning to see where the person was and find those who he was exposed to,” he said.
Gamzu said he feels Israel is currently not carrying out this process effectively. He said that with the help of the Israel Defense Forces carrying out contact tracing and questioning manually, as opposed to relying on phone applications (used to detect potential exposure points), he is hopeful that the results will be evident within the next two to three weeks.
He told JNS that his goal is to get Israel’s reproduction number, or R number, down to 0.8; it is currently hovering at around 1.0. The R number rates a disease’s ability to spread. In other words, it is the number of people on average that one infected person will pass the virus on to. R numbers above 1.0 are considered dangerous.
“Having an R number of 1.0 in Israel with almost nothing shut down is kind of an accomplishment. However, it’s not good enough. You can’t run a country with an infection rate of 1.0 as you try to keep the schools open and promote normalization,” said Gamzu. “I am building the infrastructure to get us down to my target of 0.8. I am not sure I am going to succeed, but this is all about balancing risks,” he added, meaning keeping the country opened instead of another shutdown.
Gamzu said the third part of his plan is to hold local officials, including mayors and community officials, responsible for fighting the virus as the fall/winter season approaches, and with it other illnesses, such as flu.
“The central government gives the directives, but we must create facilities in each community in order to manage the crisis,” he said. “Each mayor has to work with the IDF, Health Ministry and police in each neighborhood to assist us in cutting the chain of infection.”
Gamzu said he realizes that the final part of his plan is difficult in a country like Israel, where “the number of people per household is higher than in other countries, especially in the ultra-Orthodox and Arab sectors.” The challenge, he noted, is “tougher here with people being infected within their own households.” Nevertheless, he is adamant that “community leaders in each neighborhood must assist us.”
Gamzu also touched on other issues concerning COVID-19, including the current ban on non-Israelis entering the country. He is in favor of bringing tourists back to Israel as long as they follow his proposed protocol.
He believes that tourists from “green” countries with low infection rates should be allowed into Israel without testing or quarantine required, while those from “yellow” countries should be tested for the virus upon arrival at Ben-Gurion International Airport. (He expressed his hope that a testing facility would be operational at the airport for both incoming and outgoing passengers within the next month). For tourists from “red” countries, he thinks that they should undergo both testing and quarantine.
Gamzu has not yet finalized a plan for the return of Israeli students to schools on Sept. 1, but says younger students will be able to attend classes in person in “capsules” and with smaller class sizes, while older students can do more school work from home via distance learning and only attend in person around once a week.
Responding to recent media reports in Israel about a possible countrywide lockdown for the upcoming High Holidays, Gamzu denied that a decision had been made on the matter. He once again stressed that a countrywide lockdown should only be implemented as a last resort.
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