20 virus patients attended anti-government rallies in past month, report says

20 virus patients attended anti-government rallies in past month, report says

Health Ministry deputy reportedly says that despite cases at protests, no way to confirm if coronavirus spread among demonstrators

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Protesters against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, outside his official residence in Jerusalem, on August 29, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Protesters against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, outside his official residence in Jerusalem, on August 29, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Health Ministry has determined that at least 20 coronavirus patients attended anti-government demonstrations over the past month, according to a Thursday report.

It is not known if they were infected at the rallies, or if they passed on the virus to other protesters, the Kan public broadcaster reported.

Allies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have repeatedly called for the mass rallies, which have in some cases been attended by more than 10,000 people, to be banned, or at least severely limited, citing concerns they could spread the virus.

While the size of most gatherings has been capped to stymie infections, no such restriction has been placed on the right to demonstrate.

Over the past three months, at least 50 people later diagnosed with the coronavirus attended rallies, according to Health Ministry findings, Kan reported.

Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch ordered a probe of infections linked to rallies after Eric Hass, director of the ministry’s routine immunizations department, on Sunday told the Knesset Coronavirus Committee that as of late August not a single virus infection had been traced to the demonstrations.

MK Yoav Kisch, then chairman of the Interior Affairs Committee at the Knesset, on July 12, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The review discovered that dozens of patients had been at demonstrations, but Kisch has reportedly admitted there is no way of knowing if they were infected at the protests, or if they infected others who were present.

The Health Ministry epidemiological survey that virus patients are required to fill out after being diagnosed doesn’t include “demonstrations” as a possible source of infection, unlike other choices such as family celebration, restaurant, prayer house, or place of work, which muddles the data on protests.

After Hass told the committee that no infections had been identified at the rallies so far, coalition whip MK Miki Zohar, a key Netanyahu ally who has repeatedly urged that the rallies be stopped, called the notion “totally delusional.”

“Even if we begin with the totally delusional assumption that there are no infections at the demonstrations, we will never be able to explain why we are permitting mass gatherings at rallies and on the other hand prohibiting prayers and cultural events,” Zohar tweeted Sunday, referring to other government restrictions on public life.

In July, Zohar called for demonstrations to be outlawed as a “health hazard to all Israeli citizens.”

Likud MK Miki Zohar reacts during a meeting at the Knesset, January 13, 2020. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Kan further reported that two weeks ago there was an anti-government demonstration in Tel Aviv, following which a participant was diagnosed with the coronavirus. However, only a small number of those who also attended were instructed to quarantine as is usually the case for anyone who had recent contact with a known virus carrier.

The Health Ministry does not know how many people were at the demonstration and only a few received messages from the Shin Bet security service instructing them to self-isolate, Kan said.

The Shin Bet is using its tracking technologies, including cell phone locations, to identify those who were in contact with virus patients and then sends them a text message informing them they must quarantine for two weeks.

The protests against Netanyahu, which are centered outside his official residence in Jerusalem but also held at other locations across the country, are focused on the prime minister’s graft trial and the government’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak.

Infection rates have spiraled upwards with the Health Ministry reporting Thursday that nearly 4,000 fresh cases were diagnosed the day before, a new high for the country that is in the grip of a second wave of infections.

Since the start of the outbreak 143,049 have been diagnosed in Israel with COVID-19 and 1,055 have died.

After having earlier this week applied nightly curfews in 40 of the hardest hit towns and neighborhoods, ministers voted on Thursday to impose a full lockdown to stem the spiraling outbreak from sometime next week.

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