As cases drop to 2,000, virus czar says threshold for easing lockdown is close

Ronni Gamzu says he will recommend removing first set of measures, but notes downward trend could still be reversed

Coronavirus czar Prof. Ronni Gamzu at the Jerusalem Municipality, on October 13, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Coronavirus czar Prof. Ronni Gamzu at the Jerusalem Municipality, on October 13, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Ronni Gamzu, the leader of the government’s efforts to contain the coronavirus outbreak, estimated on Thursday that infection rates in Israel could reach the threshold for easing some lockdown restrictions in the coming days, while warning that the current downward trend could still be reversed and that it was too early to draw definite conclusions.

Health Ministry figures published Thursday morning showed 2,004 new cases were confirmed throughout Wednesday, just over the 2,000 mark below which authorities have determined that measures can start to be eased.

However, as Gamzu has clarified, the target number of 2,000 daily infections — along with a positive test rate of under eight percent and a basic reproduction number of less than 0.8 — must be met as a daily average for an entire week.

“According to this morning’s data there has been another drop in confirmed [carriers] and it is currently around 2,000,” Gamzu told Army Radio. “The positive rate is under 8%, and the basic reproduction number reached its goal. However, we need to consider the number of daily infections while looking several days back and see the daily average over at least a week.”

Gamzu said authorities would check early next week whether the target numbers have been reached, and expressed optimism.

“I believe we will reach the target number, and that is what I will tell the cabinet,” he said, referring to a key meeting of the so-called coronavirus cabinet taking place Thursday, during which ministers were discussing separate exit plans for cities with low and high infection rates, as well as reopening preschools and allowing restaurants to offer takeout in addition to the current delivery-only services. There are reported differences of opinion among ministers regarding allowing businesses that don’t see customers to reopen.

“We will have to double-check the numbers, but my opinion is that at the beginning of next week, we will definitely be able to take the first step in easing the restrictions,” Gamzu said. That phase is expected to return the private sector to normal operations, excluding businesses that receive customers in person, and reopen kindergartens and preschools.

Gamzu warned that “nothing is certain” and “there definitely could still be an increase in confirmed [carriers].”

Magen David Adom workers wearing protective clothing seen outside the coronavirus unit at Shaare Zedek Hospital in Jerusalem on October 11, 2020. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

The 2,004 new infections reported by the Health Ministry — as well as a preliminary number of 349 for cases discovered on Thursday — brought the total number of cases since the start of the pandemic to 299,502, of which 43,793 are active cases.

The ministry said 38,052 test results came back Wednesday, 5.3% of which were positive, similar to Tuesday and lower than the figure for the previous days.

The death toll stood at 2,109. The number of serious cases continued its downward trend and reached 739, including 247 on ventilators. Another 242 were in moderate condition and the rest had mild or no symptoms.

Israel’s rate of positive coronavirus test results is the lowest since July. Less than three weeks ago, daily infections were above 8,000.

Gamzu said Wednesday that officials were looking into the possibility of shortening the time required for mandatory quarantine of those exposed to the virus. He said the drop in infections and the readiness of the health system to test people quickly and to swiftly trace contacts made the move a possibility.

Israel currently requires 14 days of quarantine for anyone coming from abroad and anyone who was in contact with a confirmed carrier.

Gamzu suggested that those in quarantine may be able to leave after just 10 days by taking a virus test. He said an announcement on the matter would be made in the coming days.

“We have enough tests to allow it. It’s being worked on in the Health Ministry,” he said during a tour of an IDF Home Front Command headquarters tasked with contact tracing.

“There is at the moment a good ability to sever [the chain of infection],” he said. “There is an operating headquarters, 2,000 investigations [a day] are being handled with high quality. That gives us the ability to contain, to control.”

Gamzu also backed maintaining the lockdown in so-called “red” cities, which aligns with his so-called color-coded traffic light plan — proposed previously but not put into effect — that would apply localized lockdown measures depending on infection rates.

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