As Israel’s fourth coronavirus wave worsens, its top COVID official admits that the country mishandled the pandemic in failing to use the months when infections dropped dramatically to galvanize the unvaccinated to get the immunizations.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Times of Israel, coronavirus czar Prof. Salman Zarka also addressed other “mistakes” made recently, when leaders believed they had vanquished the virus — only to be “surprised” by the Delta variant.
Israel declared victory against COVID-19 two months ago, when the final restrictions were abolished, but Zarka said that it is clear now that “we only won the battle and the war is still here.” Preparations are needed for a possible fifth wave, he said.
Zarka argued passionately against lockdown, despite thousands of daily new COVID infections. He is determined that the nation will celebrate the upcoming Rosh Hashanah holiday with their families and in synagogues, insisting that while the gatherings will lead to infections, it is part of living with the virus.
This reality of living alongside the virus is likely to mean a long period of booster shots, masks, and efforts to avoid crowding, said Zarka.
“COVID-19 is here and will stay here, and we may have to take a mask for many months and maybe years,” he said. Later in the interview, he stressed: “The world was changed by this virus.”
Israel developed a reputation as the so-called vaccination nation, by inoculating early and widely. But as the country returned to normalcy in the spring, with suggestions that herd immunity had arrived, efforts to persuade the vaccine holdouts to roll up their sleeves eased off. And when teen vaccinations were launched in June, at first, the campaign was very gentle.
Now, a million eligible people out of a population just over 9 million are unvaccinated, including around 140,000 who are from the most at-risk age group: 50-plus. As well as easing off the vaccine push, Israel shut down some virus-fighting facilities, including the very successful Magen Avot program for protecting people in nursing homes.
“Two months ago, after we celebrated victory against the virus and got back to our regular life, we closed some facilities and believed we won the war,” said Zarka, who was appointed on July 14. “We stopped trying to explain and push [the unvaccinated] to have the vaccination. After we started Delta and the fourth wave of the disease, we returned to dealing with this.
“It seems that some mistakes were made when we thought we won the war, and now we understand we only won the battle, the war is still here, and we have to continue and to explain and push all the people to get vaccinated.”
Blindsided by Delta
While acknowledging the government’s mistakes, Zarka underlined that officials were pushed to formulate and fast-track policies without sufficient data.
“If you look at the outcomes, we can say we really made mistakes when we decided to get back fully to our regular life. But you know, for the last year and a half, all over the world and in Israel, we were making decisions without enough data.
“It’s a new virus we are learning about what will happen every day. We thought based on what we know about virology that COVID-19 would behave like flu or other viruses, but unfortunately the Delta surprised us in the short time we had it.”
“Yes, we made mistakes, and we have to learn from these mistakes, and we have to realize that Delta or COVID-19 is here, and is still here and we have to think already about the fifth wave, not only the fourth.”
Expectations for the future must be tempered, he believes.
Zarka suggested that it is unrealistic for the foreseeable future to assume a constant normality where the country functions as it did pre-pandemic. Instead, conjuring an image of an accordion, he said Israelis must realize the country will manage the pandemic by varying the degree to which it is open or closed.
Will boosters offset infections over Rosh Hashanah and in schools?
Zarka is overseeing what is believed to be the world’s most intense booster drive, which has given almost 1.5 million shots, which, according to early research, are indeed giving a boost to antibody levels.
Israel is currently offering boosters to everyone aged 40-plus, as well as younger people in some professions and health conditions. Two-thirds of 90-plus Israelis have received boosters, as have 71 percent of people in their 80s, and 76% of people in their 70s.
Zarka said that boosters will now be part of life.
“It seems that if we learn the lessons from the fourth wave, we must consider the [possibility of subsequent] waves with the new variants, such as the new one from South America,” he said. “And thinking about this and the waning of the vaccines and the antibodies, it seems every few months — it could be once a year or five or six months — we’ll need another shot.”
Zarka said he expects that by late 2021 or early 2022, Israel will be giving shots that are especially adapted to cope better with variants.
For now, Israel is in an epic race between vaccines and the virus. Infections and cases of serous illness are still rising, but Zarka, like Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, is pinning high hopes on boosters to bring down infections and largely offset the impact of increased contact between people during what they hope will be a lockdown-free Rosh Hashanah, in two weeks.
“When these people with the third shot have less risk of being sick, the new cases will slow down,” said Zarka. “All of this has to happen before Rosh Hashanah. This is why we are in an emergency situation, pushing vaccinations in every situation in every place…. We believe that if people have the vaccination now before Rosh Hashanah, we will have fewer new cases of serious illness [than we otherwise would]. So I believe after Rosh Hashanah, although we’ll have new cases, they won’t be in a such large numbers that you have no places in the hospital.”
Dismissing lockdown as the “easy option,” but one that will harm citizens, he predicted that gatherings of 50 will be permitted inside and gatherings of 100 outdoors over the holiday, and that synagogues will stay open.
“I’m really optimistic about this situation, and that we can get to Rosh Hashanah and really celebrate Rosh Hashanah,” he said, adding the caveat that he does not know what will happen at the last minute.
Zarka considers a rise in infections from increased interaction inevitable, but considers it a price to pay for relative normality, whether over Rosh Hashanah or following school reopening, which he is keen to see happen on time on September 1.
“I can promise you that we will have more cases when school will be open,” he stated. “When people gather again and again, this is how the virus passes from one to another.
“I’m not trying to have zero cases, I’m trying to have cases of a level at which the country can continue living with open markets, open schools, medical services provided as needed. I’m not looking to close the country, while, on the other hand, we need to be realistic — the pandemic is here, the virus is here, and new cases will happen.
“We need to find way to live with, and to live with is to let people celebrate Rosh Hashanah. This is what it means to live with the virus. Living with it is to let our children get back to school — that’s to live with it. To close everyone in our houses is not to live with it.”
While determined to see most of Israel mark Rosh Hashanah with families and communities, Zarka will not be celebrating. He is not Jewish, but a member of Israel’s Druze minority. One of the country’s most prolific Arabic-speaking medical professionals, he heads Ziv Medical Center in the Galilee city of Safed, and became renowned for leading efforts there, spanning several years, to treat the wounded from the Syrian civil war. He used to lead the health division in the military’s medical corps.
At the end of his interview with The Times of Israel, which he conducted from his home in a Druze town in northern Israel, Zarka reflected on his identity.
“I look in the mirror when I have time, and I don’t see a Druze or a minority, but a physician from the north of Israel, from the Druze community, who really feels a proud Israeli and now faces a big challenge together with partners at the Health Ministry with the government, with healthcare providers and Israeli citizens, to win the next battle against the virus.”