The new British strain of coronavirus, believed to be far more contagious than the original version, has been found in Israel, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein told ministers at a cabinet meeting Wednesday as they discussed implementing a potential new national lockdown within days.
The Health Ministry confirmed that four cases of the coronavirus mutation that has been circulating in the UK had been located in Israel.
Three of the cases were people who had recently returned from England and were staying in state-run hotels. However, the fourth person had not been abroad and had been infected by an apparently unidentified individual inside Israel, signaling the new strain could already be spreading in the country. It was not yet clear whether that person had come into contact with someone who had returned from the UK.
Edelstein told ministers health officials were now “less optimistic” that the strain has not infiltrated the population.
According to Channel 12, health officials fear a significant spike in infections in the ultra-Orthodox population in recent weeks may be the result of the UK strain. The network said health officials are investigating certain test results to check that theory.
The mutation is believed to be more infectious — up to 70 percent more, according to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson — but not more lethal. It is not yet clear whether the vaccines that have begun being deployed around the world in recent days are effective against the new strain, though drug makers have voiced optimism that they are while saying they can quickly adapt their formulas if need be.
Ahead of the cabinet meeting, coronavirus czar Nachman Ash warned that the number of deaths from the pandemic could nearly double within two months, taking the death toll to over 6,000, if effective action is not taken to stem the rising tide of cases.
Since the start of the outbreak in the country there have been 3,136 deaths.
“If we continue with the policy of ‘sit and do nothing,’ I’m afraid morbidity will continue to spike at a much more dangerous and sharp rate, and within two months we will reach an additional 3,000 dead,” he said.
“It must be understood there is no choice but to go into lockdown. If action had been taken according to our recommendations two weeks ago, this may have been avoided. As we predicted, the morbidity rose significantly, including morbidity of the seriously ill,” he said.
At the cabinet meeting, Netanyahu was reported to echo that warning, telling ministers that both serious cases and deaths would rise sharply “if we don’t act immediately… We will pay a heavy price.”
Health officials were said to be calling on ministers to approve a 25-day lockdown of the entire country from the beginning of next week, rather than a more limited restrictions package that had previously been considered.
The Health Ministry proposal was said to include shuttering the entire education system except for special education, all non-essential businesses, a ban on visiting others’ homes and limiting travel to within a kilometer of one’s home. Public transport will go down 50% while gatherings will be limited to no more than 10 people indoors, or 20 outdoors.
The new lockdown would come before Israel has fully exited its previous lockdown begun in September.
According to Channel 12 News, ministers for the Blue and White party, led by Defense Minister Benny Gantz, were said to have agreed among themselves that they will only back a lockdown if it begins in the middle of next week, giving the public more time to prepare.
Netanyahu also held a meeting with his Likud party’s ministers to ensure they would back the lockdown, Channel 12 reported. However, Education Minister Yoav Gallant reportedly asked that his ministry be permitted to present a plan to keep schools open.
The warning from Ash, and increasing pressure from health officials for a lockdown, came as new diagnoses surpassed 3,000 a day for the third day in a row, with Health Minister Edelstein saying Tuesday that Israel had entered a “third wave” of the virus.
“We are in a critical situation. We wasted precious time, and the state of the infections means we have no choice but to go into lockdown,” he said.
A new virus rule was set to take effect within hours: Starting at 10 p.m. Wednesday, all Israelis arriving from abroad must quarantine at state-operated and specifically designated hotels. Previously, Israelis requiring quarantine after returning from countries with high infection rates could self-isolate in their own homes.
Israel’s two previous lockdowns, first in April and then again in September, succeeded in bringing down infection numbers, but morbidity ballooned again as the closures were rolled back.
Though Israel in recent days began mass vaccinations for the population, health experts have warned it will take two to three months for the inoculations to start mitigating the pandemic throughout the population.
On Wednesday Oxford University-based Our World in Data website published figures showing Israel leading the world in number of people per capita to receive the coronavirus vaccine. The ranking was skewed by the fact that Israel’s data appeared to be up to date, while figures from other countries were from several days back. Still, Israel was likely to remain near the head of the pack when data was synced up.
In Israel, which kicked of its vaccination campaign on Sunday, 0.83 of every 100 people have been immunized against the novel coronavirus, according to the latest data. The United Kingdom, which began vaccinating citizens on December 8, was ranked second with 0.74 vaccinated per 100 people, as of December 21.
Nevertheless, Netanyahu tweeted a chart showing the figures, declaring: “Tremendous success!”
Health Ministry Yuli Edelstein also touted Israel’s supposed first-place ranking.
“This is how we defeat the coronavirus,” he was quoted saying in a Health Ministry statement.
הצלחה אדירה! ישראל במקום הראשון בעולם לחסן את אזרחיה נגד הקורונה ???????? pic.twitter.com/9Qx28qq7qA
— Benjamin Netanyahu (@netanyahu) December 23, 2020
As rising morbidity and the new virus strain create new uncertainty, Israel was plunged into fresh political chaos Tuesday with the Knesset dissolved and new elections coming up.
On Wednesday the Health Ministry announced that 3,251 coronavirus cases were confirmed the previous day, bringing the number of infections in Israel since the pandemic began to 383,385.
The ministry said that 5.1 percent of tests came back positive over Tuesday — a new high not seen in long weeks.
The number of active cases in the country stood at 28,960, with 503 patients in serious condition, including 118 on ventilators. Another 161 were in moderate condition, with the rest showing mild or no symptoms.
Israel reached the grim milestone of 3,000 deaths from the virus last week.
The rising numbers and looming lockdown came as Israel this week began a mass vaccination program.
Health Minister Edelstein said that 71,876 Israelis had been vaccinated as of Tuesday night.
“We’re only at the start of the path. Go get vaccinated,” he was quoted saying in a Health Ministry statement.
Medical workers were given the first injections on Sunday and the following day vaccinations were opened up to those aged 60 and up. The government has not yet specified when the vaccines will be made available more broadly. The aim is to reach 60,000 vaccinations a day and a target of two million inoculations by the end of January.
Ash, speaking in a separate Wednesday morning interview, said that he estimated 20% of the population would be inoculated by March.
He added, “If we want to get 60% vaccinated during the process, there is still a ways to go.”
It was not clear how a lockdown would impact the vaccination drive, though at a Sunday meeting of a core panel of ministers tasked with preparing virus policy officials said that arrangements would be made to enable the vaccinations to continue.