By Susanne Dzodin, with Photos by Joel Dzodin / Tel Aviv
Israel was acclaimed as a poster child for getting country out of the COVID-19 pandemic. After vaccinating about 50% of the country over a couple of months, Israel’s numbers plummeted and we had hardly any severe cases or new cases, and no deaths. But now we are a country at risk and many countries require us to quarantine when entering, even the fully vaccinated. We went from a few cases to 10,000 new cases a day in late August and 7,776 on September 13. What happened?
First, after half of the population over 16 years old had been vaccinated and the numbers had gone down, the government dropped the ball in not pushing for the rest of the people to get vaccinated. When vaccinations were opened for children between 12-15, instead of strongly urging parents to take their children to get vaccinated, the Israeli Health Department told parents to make a decision with their doctor, in effect saying it was not that important to vaccinate children. At the same time, cultural and sport events were taking place again, theaters and movie cinemas opened again, and restrictions of the size of events were dropped. Initially, one needed a green pass to enter these events, but that was dropped, too.
While all this was happening, the Naftali Bennet and Yair Lapid (Yamina and Yesh Atid parties, respectively) government was forming and the outgoing Netanyahu government seemed to stop caring about any restrictions still on the books, such as the tests and quarantine requirements for Israelis returning to the country. And Yuli Edelstein, the outgoing health minister, removed the mask mandate a few days before the new government came in.
But it was too late. By that point, the numbers were rising again, most likely because the Delta variant entered the country via unvaccinated travelers who did not quarantine properly. When the new government assumed power, they were busy with other things at first, but quickly realized that the numbers were going up. After 10 days, the mask mandate for indoor spaces was reinstituted but the numbers kept climbing. At that point, health officials realized that the immunity of people six months after their second shot was waning, and that was mostly for the population over 60, many at high risk.
Because not enough people had been vaccinated, the Delta variant was able to spread, and also cause breakthrough infections among the vaccinated. So the government debated which restrictions were now needed, but refused to declare a lockdown, which was very unpopular. Now, we again need to use our green pass, this time in a more organized manner, for libraries, museums, theaters, sport events, and restaurants. There are again restrictions on how many people can congregate indoors at the same time, and the police have again started giving tickets to people not wearing their masks properly.
At the same time, the authorities have intensified the campaign to get the unvaccinated vaccinated and since the beginning of August, to get as many people as possible to receive a third booster shot. The first people eligible were the 60+ group: now anyone over 12 years old who is five months beyond their second shot is also eligible. Is it helping? Maybe. The Health Department says that the numbers are reaching a plateau and some indicators seem to show that we are coming out of the fourth wave. But nonetheless, it might be an uphill battle. A health official said in the middle of August that in order to conquer this wave, 5 million people will need to get the booster shot; at this point, fewer than 3 million have received it.
Schools across Israel opened on September 1st, and 12- to 15-year-olds are still not sufficiently vaccinated (under 50%). Fully one-third of teachers are not vaccinated at all. They are supposed to have themselves regularly tested at their own expense, but the teachers’ union, is protesting this rule. Although we are making good progress with the fourth wave, what is going to happen now that kids have returned to school? The High Holidays are now underway, and at this point we have no restriction on family gatherings and synagogue attendance. As a result, unvaccinated children are bringing the virus home. Hundreds of thousands of people are in quarantine, including our children and grandchildren at this moment, and thousands, God forbid, will get sick. People who have gotten their booster shots already seem to have regained strong immunity, but the government was unable to give 3 million booster shots within the two-week period before the holidays.
While I am usually an optimist, in this case I am quite concerned about the upcoming few months. I don't see how we are going to get out of this, unless by a miracle all these unvaccinated people see the light. And that is probably the only way of keeping another, even stronger variant from spreading. I also expect in about six months, we will need another booster. It is also somewhat depressing, as we are again restricting our activities in order to minimize our chances of exposure. All the adults in our family (the grandchildren are all below 12) did get the third shot, but since there is still some uncertainty as to how strong our immunity is, we are being cautious. Every time a grandchild has a fever or the sniffles, we wonder. We are again wearing our masks, even when outdoors in larger crowds.
It’s been a long, hot uncomfortable summer. At the beginning of this year, after getting both shots, we were filled with hope that things were getting better. And now it seems we are back at square one.