Israel battles surge in coronavirus infections in schools

Children in Israel returned to schools in a staggered reopening about two weeks ago © Amir Cohen/Reuters

Israel has told almost 10,000 students and teachers to quarantine at home as it struggles to stem an outbreak of coronavirus in schools three weeks after reopening its economy.

Children returned to schools in a staggered reopening about two weeks ago, after Israel’s new coronavirus infections hovered below 50 cases a day for several weeks. However, at least 220 students and teachers were confirmed to have been infected in the past few days, including more than 150 from a single school in an upscale Jerusalem neighbourhood.

The outbreak has pushed new infections to almost 100 cases a day for the first time since early May, close to the threshold at which health officials have indicated some lockdown restrictions would be reimposed.

"If we get 100 sick people in a day that are not connected to the same outbreak epicentre, we’ll need to step back, restrictions-wise,” Itamar Grotto, deputy head of the health ministry, told a parliamentary committee. “For now there is one outbreak centre, we have a plan to contain it that does not involve the whole population.”

The government has responded by saying it will shut down any school with a single confirmed case. This is stricter than the earlier requirement of waiting until three cases were confirmed before a school would have to be closed, which had affected fewer than a dozen schools since the lockdown was lifted.

Israel’s experiment with returning children to schools has been closely watched abroad as the country took the lead in opening up its economy after a relatively mild trajectory of fewer than 20,000 cases and under 300 deaths. No more than 30 people are currently on respirators.

An epidemiological study released on Tuesday indicated that about 200,000 Israelis, under 3 per cent of the population, had developed post-infection antibodies, far below the 60 per cent required for so-called “herd immunity”.

While Israelis are required to wear masks in public or in indoor situations where social distancing is not practical, the regulation is not being regularly enforced. Restaurants are offering outdoor seating and most offices and factories have reopened.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday that a new inspection protocol would be enforced to make sure businesses and schools were complying with social distancing requirements.

Israelis have flocked to beaches, parks and outdoor concerts by the thousands as the country largely appeared to have escaped the brunt of the pandemic after a gruelling shutdown that left nearly a third of the population unemployed.

Rules in schools have been confusing, teachers and parents have complained. Some schools required parents to carry out temperature checks at home, while others checked temperatures at the gate before children were allowed in.

Children are required to wear masks, but parents and teachers said enforcing that during the hot Israeli summer was difficult. Parents have also conceded that young children cannot be forced to remain apart from each other, making social distancing difficult.

Israel has the capacity to test up to 15,000 people a day, although many testing centres have been idled as demand for tests has waned.

Source: Financial Times (myft)

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