As restrictions loom, taskforce says daily COVID caseload has doubled in 2 weeks

Health Ministry reports 1,230 new cases with 3.3% positivity rate; ministry head says better to impose restrictions now, when they can be lighter, rather than heavier ones later

Hospital medical staff wearing protective clothes move patients to a coronavirus ward at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, on November 16, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Hospital medical staff wearing protective clothes move patients to a coronavirus ward at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, on November 16, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

New cases of the coronavirus have nearly doubled in two weeks, Health Ministry data showed Monday morning, as ministers were set to reconvene to hash out possible new restrictions or a halt to plans to open up more parts of the economy.

Health Ministry figures showed that the average number of daily new cases over the past week had grown to 1,318 on Monday, up from 750 new cases a day recorded November 22. The figures are based on a 7-day average.

That figure is the highest since mid-October, when Israel was emerging from the second wave of the pandemic, the Corona National Information and Knowledge Center said in a report Monday.

The report also flagged the rising number of patients being hospitalized in serious condition. The Health Ministry said there were 331 patients in serious condition Monday morning, up from 260 a week ago. Of them, 112 patients are on ventilators.

The death toll rose by two overnight and reached 2,917.

The ministry said 1,230 new COVID-19 patients were diagnosed Sunday, with 3.3 percent of the 36,844 tests coming back positive. The positivity rate was a decline from 3.9% recorded Saturday, but was higher than previous days. The average positivity rate over the last seven days has been 2.6%, according to the center.

Testing levels have tended to drop over weekends, with positivity rates temporarily rising.

The total number of confirmed cases in the country since the pandemic began is 345,201, including 12,776 active cases.

The taskforce recommended reimposing some restrictions that have been eased, “to stop the rise in infections and preventing the outbreak from spiraling out of control.”

Officials estimate that every two days without restrictions being reimposed will require one day of full lockdown down the road.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that he would not hesitate to bring back restrictions to avoid more painful curbs down the road, but his coronavirus cabinet failed to agree on a plan after meeting for several hours on Sunday evening.

Ministers on the panel are slated to reconvene at 4 p.m. Monday.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein visit the Teva Pharmaceuticals’ logistics center in Shoham, where coronavirus vaccines are set to be stored and distributed, November 26, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein warned Sunday evening that the country was in danger of entering a third lockdown if action is not taken within days to curb the outbreak.

Most parts of the economy have been reopened and the school system returned to full attendance on Sunday, over three months after Israel entered a national lockdown to stem runaway morbidity rates in September.

In a statement late Sunday, ministers said they had decided to extend for another 48 hours a pilot project that has seen some malls, markets and museums open. The project had been due to expire on Sunday at midnight.

Nachman Ash, the top official charged with battling the virus, presented a grim projection during the meeting, saying that at the current rate, new daily cases will grow from 1,500 to about 7,400 in just three weeks. That would mean a wave of infections similar in its severity to the country’s second wave between August and October, which led to a month-long lockdown and put significant strain on Israel’s health system.

Ash presented two alternatives, both of which would significantly reimpose restrictions that have been lifted.

The first would close all businesses that receive customers in person, including street stores, malls and markets, as well as schools in medium- and high-infection areas. Public transportation would be reduced by 50 percent.

The second plan would include all that and also close all schools nationwide, alongside travel restrictions.

Students arrive at a high school in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod, November 29, 2020. (Flash90)

According to various news outlets, the Health Ministry has recommended that Israel shut down all nonessential stores, just weeks after they were gradually reopened, and close all schools in medium- and high-infection areas.

Reports indicated that the ministry was also attempting to reimpose quarantine restrictions for arrivals from all countries, including those deemed low-infection areas.

Speaking with Army Radio on Monday, Health Ministry Director-General Chezy Levy said that while the outbreak was initially concentrated mainly in the Arab community, it has now spread to all parts of Israeli society.

“This is a phenomenon that can accelerate in a very short time,” he said, arguing against further reopening the economy. “We want to implement preventative measures now that will be lighter, rather than after the horse has left the barn.”

Business owners and others have lobbied against a new lockdown, fearing more economic damage.

An estimate from economist Roby Nathanson put the potential damage to Israel’s economy from a fresh lockdown at tens of billions of shekels, according to the Yedioth Ahronoth daily.

On Sunday, hundreds of thousands of students in grades 7-10 returned to class for the first time in over two months.

Grades 7-10 were the last students remaining at home since the second nationwide lockdown was imposed in mid-September. Starting late October, the government has gradually been reopening the school system, permitting first younger students, and then high schoolers, to return to class several days a week.

The reopening of schools in May, and again on September 1, was blamed for a serious rise in coronavirus cases around the country.

Education Minister Yoav Gallant has denied that schools are feeding infections.

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