Officials worry recent fighting in Gaza could lead to Covid-19 spike

The UN warned of a potential surge of new cases as tens of thousands of Gazans took shelter in 50 UN-run schools.
The UN warned of a potential surge of new cases as tens of thousands of Gazans took shelter in 50 UN-run schools.PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - Health officials and international aid groups are watching to see if nearly two weeks of fighting between Israel and Hamas militants led to a wave of new coronavirus cases in Gaza.

The United Nations warned on Monday (May 17), at the start of the second week of fighting, of a potential surge of new cases as tens of thousands of Gazans took shelter in 50 UN-run schools. A ceasefire was declared on Friday.

"The schools were overcrowded, and there was basically no social distancing in them," said Dr Majdi Dhair, director of preventive medicine for the Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza. "If someone was sick in any one school, that person could have infected everyone around them."

A majority of Gazans likely hunkered down in their homes during the two weeks of fighting and had less contact than usual with others, which could ultimately temper the size of any new outbreak, Dr Dhair said. It would take several days for the case data to show the extent of a possible spike.

The only laboratory in the Gaza Strip that processes coronavirus tests was damaged in an Israeli air strike but reopened on Thursday. In the Rimal Clinic in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, windows were replaced, rooms were cleaned and the machines, which were lightly damaged, were examined and approved for use, Dr Dhair said.

The lab processed 547 tests on Thursday and Friday, of which 202 were positive.

Mr Michael Lynk, the UN special rapporteur on Palestinian human rights, said preserving vaccine access is crucial in Gaza, where inoculations were temporarily halted by the fighting. Gaza remains highly vulnerable to an outbreak, with less than 4 per cent of its population fully or partially vaccinated. That is far below the 60 per cent in Israel, one of the highest rates in the world.

"Israel is the occupying power in the West Bank and in Gaza, and it has very strict obligations," Mr Lynk said. He said the UN has reminded Israel of those obligations.

Getting vaccine supplies into the territory has been challenging. Gaza lacks funds to buy the doses, and although the territory is supposed to get aid from Covax, the global vaccine-sharing program has been slow to deliver them. Recently, the Chinese government said that it would donate doses to the UN agency that focuses on aid to Palestinian refugees.

"If there was a surge again, it would require a huge rapid infusion of international donors to find vaccines going into Gaza and making sure you have enough trained healthcare staff to administer mass inoculation," Mr Lynk said.

Israeli bombs damaged several hospitals and clinics, hindering an already crumbling healthcare system, and it is not clear how long it will take to repair them. Fresh water and sewage systems were also damaged, which could lead to disease outbreaks.

After a surge in cases last month, blamed mostly on the highly transmissible coronavirus variant first identified in Britain, new cases in Gaza had recently fallen. As at Thursday, the territory, with more than two million people, reported just 26 critical cases and 68 serious cases.