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Virus lessons from Israel for Virginia

Virus lessons from Israel for Virginia


Israel is about to begin a three-week lockdown to combat the spread of COVID-19, returning to many of the strict conditions first imposed back in April and becoming the first country in the world to impose a second round of lockdowns.

CNN reports the new rules like this: “Schools, restaurants [except delivery], and entertainment venues will all close, as well as other businesses, for an initial period of three weeks. The public sector will operate with a limited workforce, while private sector businesses can operate as long as non-employees do not enter the workspace. People will be required to stay within 500 meters of their home. Emergency services, as well as pharmacies and food stores will remain open. Outdoor gatherings will be limited to 20 people, while indoor gatherings will be limited to ten.”

This catches our eye for several things. For one thing, Israel has a conservative government, so here’s a right-of-center government imposing conditions stricter than the ones many conservatives in the United States have objected to. It’s only the United States where the virus — and the government responses to it — have become so politicized. In Israel, a conservative government has not only imposed strict conditions but done so at a particularly sensitive time — just before a major holiday, Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. “We certainly won’t be able to celebrate with our extended families,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his nation. We have yet to confront the hazards of the virus during our end-of-the-year trifecta of holidays with Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s. Secondly, Israel is about the same size as Virginia, population-wise — both somewhat north of 8.6 million. That makes for a good compare-contrast.

Israel’s latest lockdown was spurred by a surge in virus cases — which recently hit a high of 4,167 new infections in a single day. By contrast, Virginia’s all-time high came May 18, when the state reported 1,333 cases. With only a few exceptions, Israel has been over that — often well over that — since July 7. Its seven-day moving average (which smooths the ups and downs of daily reporting) is 3,617 cases per day, a figure that’s more than doubled in the past month. The most recent figures show Virginia’s seven-day moving average is 736 new cases per day and trending downward. The obvious bottom line: Israel is in much worse shape than we are, or have ever been, in terms of total infections. On the other hand, Israel has logged 1,111 virus-related deaths while Virginia has recorded 2,839.

Israel’s current problems are notable because early on, it was one of the countries that appeared to have beaten the virus — perhaps not as much as New Zealand, which for a time eliminated it entirely, but close. Israel began enforcing social distancing March 11 — a day before the NCAA canceled March Madness in the United States — and went on to impose far stricter rules than anything seen here. On April 1, Israel required face masks in public, long before any U.S. state did. For Passover on April 8, Israel told people not to go more than 330 feet from their home. The virus peaked in Israel at 738 cases in one day — about what Virginia’s declining seven-day average is now — and then plummeted to almost nothing in May. On May 23, Israel recorded just four new cases, a figure Virginia hasn’t seen since Feb. 27 when the virus was still arriving. Then through the summer the virus started to come back — at levels higher than before. Several conclusions here: The harsh lockdown in March worked, but after the restrictions ended, Israelis let their guard down and the virus came back. This is a pernicious — and persistent — enemy we’re facing. “Israelis have left the coronavirus lockdown behind and there is no going back,” the newspaper Haaretz triumphantly headlined in April. Not so fast . . . Israel’s experience should be a cautionary tale for us: Downward trends can easily reverse themselves if we’re not careful. More than two-thirds of the Israeli virus deaths have come in the second wave.

The Israel-Virginia comparison made us curious about other international comparisons. Americans don’t fully appreciate how out-of-sync we are with the rest of the world. The U.S. has one of the highest infection rates in the world. We’re currently running 19,522 cases per 1 million people, just behind Peru, Brazil and Panama, none of them known for their public health system. By contrast, the rates in our two nearest neighbors are 3,620 case per 1 million in Canada and 5,183 in Mexico. In Europe, rates range from 783 in Latvia to 12,112 in Spain, with Spain being very much an outlier. The most populous nation in Europe — Germany — has a rate of just 3,124. The United States is so big, though, that the national rates don’t necessarily reflect what’s happening in our particular region. Even the statewide rates sometimes make it hard to understand our local conditions. Early on, Virginia’s rates were driven by Northern Virginia while parts of Southwest Virginia remained virus-free. Now it’s the other way around — with Southwest Virginia (which the state health department defines as everything west of Farmville and Danville) having the highest rates in the state. The Virginia Public Access Project has done some nifty number-crunching that narrows things done further. It defines regions in a more classic way. Southwest Virginia (everything from Montgomery County to the west) is running 1,182 cases per 100,000 or, to translate things to the international scale, 11,820 per 1 million. The Valley of Virginia (Roanoke to Winchester) is running 1,273 cases per 100,000 or 12,730 per 1 million. And Southside (Bedford to Surrey County) is running 1,602 cases per 100,000 or 16,020 per 1 million.

On an international scale, that means all three of the regions that are closest to us have virus rates three to four times those of Canada, which ought to make us think more deeply about why we’re so different from a neighboring country that’s quite like us culturally-speaking. If Southwest Virginia were a country in Europe, its infection rate would be second only to Spain. If the valley and Southside were countries in Europe, they’d have the highest infection rates on the continent. Those three regions also have higher rates than any country in Africa or Asia. The continent where we’d look best would be South America, where we’d be behind almost everybody except Bolivia, Guyana, Venezuela, Paraguay and Uruguay, in that order. What should those rankings tell us?

The Roanoke Times

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