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The Lesson From Israel: Do Not Be Deluded by Low COVID Case Counts

August 4, 2020

Today’s NYTImes article by Isabel and Pam Belluck details Israel’s management of the pandemic and the impact of one fateful and adverse decision: the reopening of public schools. The title of the article describes the result of that decision:

The government of Israel took the coronavirus serious from the very beginning, shutting down EVERYTHING:

The country of nine million quickly closed its borders, shuttered schools in mid-March and introduced remote learning for its two million students. In April, Passover and Ramadan were celebrated under lockdown.

The cases dropped precipitously and by mid-May their newly elected Prime Minister encouraged people to return to life as normal, reopening schools along with bars, businesses, and life in general. But from the very beginning, things did not go well… and some in Israel see the reopening of schools as one of the major reasons the COVID came back with a vengeance… and as we look at the possibility of reopening our schools in September we might learn from Israel’s experience:

The lesson, experts say, is that even communities that have gotten the spread of the virus under control need to take strict precautions when reopening schools. Smaller classes, mask wearing, keeping desks six feet apart and providing adequate ventilation, they say, are likely to be crucial until a vaccine is available.

“If there is a low number of cases, there is an illusion that the disease is over,” said Dr. Hagai Levine, a professor of epidemiology and chairman of the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians. “But it’s a complete illusion.”

“The mistake in Israel,” he said, “is that you can open the education system, but you have to do it gradually, with certain limits, and you have to do it in a very careful way.”

This reinforces my notion that the default should be that ALL schools in ALL states should be closed and exceptions to the closure be made based on some kind of national standard. The urgency to open schools is, it seems to me, being driven by politics. The first, and worst, political decision was to delegate decisions on pandemic management to States who, in turn, have delegated decisions on reopening to individual communities and school districts. Instead of having a national or statewide set of standards for reopening, we have at least 50 sets of guidelines that 13,000 school districts may or may not choose to follow.

Israel illustrates that even in a democracy where citizens trusted science and the national leadership, the desire to “get things back to normal” sidelined rational thinking and caution. Because our country believes in conspiracy theories and lacks national leadership we are about to embark on a grim experiment where some of the lessons Israel might teach us will be ignored.

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