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As Israel moves to reopen some schools, infections fall along with testing rate

Fewer than 1,000 cases recorded over weekend; virus czar urges Israelis to get tested even upon ‘slightest suspicion,’ warning that 50,000 daily tests are needed to keep reopening

Israelis perform tests for the coronavirus at a Maccabi Test Center, in Ramle. October 5, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/FLASH90)
Israelis perform tests for the coronavirus at a Maccabi Test Center, in Ramle. October 5, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/FLASH90)

The Health Ministry on Monday said it had logged fewer than 1,000 new coronavirus cases over the past two days, continuing a downward trend, as top health officials fretted about declining test rates.

The latest ministry update — the first since Saturday night, after a technical error linked to the end of daylight savings time paralyzed its database — came as the government moved to reopen schools for children through fourth grade from next week, and as a northern Druze town was sealed off after an outbreak was identified there.

The ministry said 239 cases were recorded Saturday and 559 on Sunday, down from 1,000-1,500 daily cases last week. However, testing was also down sharply over those two days. Just 6,344 tests were conducted Saturday, with 3.9 percent returning positive, significantly higher than positivity rates of 2.7-2.9% seen late last week.

On Sunday, there were 19,789 tests, with 2.8% coming back positive.

Of the remaining 13,911 active cases, 506 patients were in serious condition as of Monday morning, 206 of them on ventilators.

The death toll stood at 2,397, with 31 additional fatalities from the pandemic since Saturday night.

People wearing face masks are seen in a light rail station in Jerusalem as Israel steps out of coronavirus lockdown and rolls back restrictions on October 25, 2020.(Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Though testing rates generally drop over the weekends, the decline on Saturday and Sunday, which followed two weeks during which testing rates have steadily declined, drew expressions of concern from the top official managing the government’s pandemic response.

“I urge every citizen, even upon the slightest suspicion, ask yourself if there’s a chance you were infected,” said Ronni Gamzu on Monday, according to the Haaretz daily. “It’s all open and accessible, the results are available within hours. This pandemic, certainly in the second wave, is one that is being spread through the youth and children. They aren’t always symptomatic — and then comes the stage of symptomatic cases among adults, and hospitalizations.”

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

Gamzu said the Health Ministry had the capacity to perform 70,000 daily tests, and would in the coming weeks raise that to 100,000.

On Sunday, Gamzu warned ministers that it would be impossible to continue easing restrictions if a daily test rate of 50,000 cannot be maintained.

The coronavirus cabinet on Sunday voted to reopen schools for children in first to fourth grade early next week, if morbidity rates remain low. Under the plan approved by ministers, children in third and fourth grade will be divided into pods and go back to class, albeit for five days a week instead of the normal six, while those in first and second grade will be split into two groups that will alternate days and go to school only three times a week. Children in fifth grade and above will continue remote learning.

Schools have been closed since September 18, when a nationwide lockdown came into force to drive down infection rates, though preschools and daycares were permitted to reopen last week and many ultra-Orthodox elementary schools have opened in violation of the rules. The reopening of the school system on September 1 has been blamed for a huge spike in virus cases several weeks later.

The decision came as experts warned the ministers on Sunday that they detected outbreaks in daycares and preschools, with dozens shuttered since the reopening last Sunday, according to Army Radio. Top health officials, including Health Ministry Director General Chezy Levy and the ministry’s Sharon Alroy-Preis, expressed concern about the trend, the report said.

Sunday’s decision to reopen lower grades came after hours of discussion, and after ministers voted to keep the existing health restrictions in place until next Sunday at midnight.

Israeli kids come to school during the start of the new school year in Jerusalem on September 1, 2020. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

The coronavirus cabinet will reconvene on Monday afternoon to discuss easing restrictions on businesses.

Separately, the coronavirus cabinet also voted late Sunday to impose a five-day closure in the northern town of Majdal Shams, which has seen virus cases soar in recent days. The local lockdown will go into effect on Monday evening at 6 p.m. through Saturday evening.

According to the Health Ministry, the town of 11,000 residents has 65 active cases, 42 of which were found in the past week, giving it the highest per capita infection rate in the country.

A picture taken from the Syrian town Ain al-Tineh shows the Druze town of Majdal Shams on the Israeli Golan Heights on March 26, 2019. (Louai Beshara/AFP)

Earlier, the panel also reportedly backed a proposal by Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, effective immediately, to allow students and teachers to gather outdoors in informal groups of up to 15, even as schools remain shut. This was not immediately confirmed by the Prime Minister’s Office or Health Ministry.

The gradual reopening of the economy was expected to be on the agenda at Monday’s meeting of the coronavirus cabinet.

The government has yet to decide whether to allow the reopening of businesses, which the Finance Ministry has been pushing. The treasury has suggested terms that would see businesses limited to letting in up to five customers at a time, Channel 12 reported.

The Health Ministry has broken down the government plan to ease the restrictions into nine distinct stages. Netanyahu has expressed interest in condensing the plan into five stages, but health officials have warned that that could cause infections to spiral.

Following the initial coronavirus lockdown in the spring, health officials abandoned their staged plan amid pressure from ministers and opened nearly all schools and businesses at once in early May. That move has been blamed for playing a part in runaway infection rates over the summer that led to the second national lockdown.

Speaking at Sunday’s coronavirus cabinet meeting, Gamzu said infection rates were down among the ultra-Orthodox and up in Arab communities, but testing rates had dropped among both. He warned generally of a renewed spike in infections in Arab towns.

“There are probably dozens of weddings a day in the Arab community. Sakhnin and Umm al-Fahm are in danger of becoming ‘red’ cities,” Gamzu said, referring to hotspots, according to the Kan public broadcaster.

He also cautioned that the government could not yet detect the ramifications of its decisions last week to reopen preschools and daycares.

That was echoed by Health Minister Yuli Edelstein.

“We still don’t know the effects of what we’ve done. We won’t know until two weeks have passed” from October 18, said Edelstein, according to Army Radio.

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