Israel has been dealing with the COVID-19 Delta variant, which makes up 90% of the new cases in the country. As the country experiences an uptick, preliminary data from its national health system reported that the effectiveness of the Pfizer vaccine in preventing infections dropped to 64% from 95% in May. However, it is still 93% effective in preventing severe illness, a key outcome to measure.
Because of the national health system, the nation’s aggressive vaccination program, and the nearly exclusive use of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, data from Isreal is comprehensive. On July 12, they provided an additional set of preliminary data. According to the Times of Israel:
Citing very preliminary data, Channel 13 reports that those who recovered from COVID-19 may be better protected from reinfection than those who received the vaccine.
Since May 1, 72 people who previously had COVID were infected again, accounting for 1 percent of confirmed new cases, while 3,000 who were vaccinated have been infected — 40% of confirmed new cases.
As a result, some health experts have concluded that the previously infected are relatively safe from the Delta variant. Previous actions by the Health Ministry took this view into account with earlier COVID-19 variants. When Israel launched a program to monitor reopening, the government provided recovered patients with a green passport for six months. Those who were not yet vaccinated and had not been diagnosed with COVID-19 were supplied with a green passport for 72 hours following a negative test.
Israel began its vaccination program on December 19, 2020. Johns Hopkins data shows that the peak seven-day average of new cases (8,624) occurred on January 17, 2021. With the vaccination program and passports that included recovered patients, new cases fell sharply after March 5 and reached a seven-day average under 100 through the end of June. COVID-19 deaths also fell, with a seven-day average of two beginning on April 25. The current seven-day average of new cases is 530 and the seven-day average for deaths remains at two. Deaths are down from a seven-day average high of 65 on January 25.
In May, the Health Ministry extended green passports for recovered COVID-19 patients and vaccinated Israelis through at least December 2021. As of May 5, 80% of eligible Israelis over the age of 16 had received at least one dose of the vaccine. The government lifted most restrictions at that time and abandoned passports on June 1.
In the U.S., authoritarians such as Dr. Leana Wen want life for unvaccinated Americans, even if they are recovered, to be made difficult. The Israeli Health Ministry never intended to create two classes of citizens. When the Health Ministry announced the passport program, coronavirus czar Nachman Ash told members of the Knesset:
Whoever was vaccinated or recovered can enter places, such as Habima [theater], and whoever isn’t can do a test and then go to a performance… There won’t be a lockdown for half the country while half the country is free. This won’t happen.
With the Delta variant, new Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is implementing a soft suppression strategy. For now, it involves indoor masking and quarantine after international travel:
Under what he calls a policy of “soft suppression”, the government wants Israelis to learn to live with the virus – involving the fewest possible restrictions and avoiding a fourth national lockdown that could do further harm to the economy.
As most Israelis in risk groups have now been vaccinated against COVID-19, Bennett is counting on fewer people than before falling seriously ill when infections rise.
“Implementing the strategy will entail taking certain risks but in the overall consideration, including economic factors, this is the necessary balance,” Bennett said last week.
Some health officials are not as optimistic about the low numbers of reinfections in recovered patients. They point out that new outbreaks did not spread to those areas with large outbreaks during the initial wave, such as the ultra-Orthodox community. This observation could be analogous to the chicken and the egg. Perhaps the Delta variant isn’t sweeping through those communities because recovered patients act as a brake on infection. Israel is an ideal country to monitor this data, and America should be paying attention.