All students and teachers at Jerusalem’s Gymnasia High School will enter quarantine for over a week after over 100 people there contracted COVID-19, in the largest concentrated outbreak of the virus since infections began to wane earlier this month.
The outbreak at the school, plus a spread of cases that temporarily closed 17 other institutions around the country, has raised concerns of a potential second wave of the coronavirus pandemic.
It has also prompted top officials to warn that Israel could reintroduce lockdown restrictions, after easing most of the rules this month amid a steep downturn in cases.
According to Channel 12, a “super-spreader” teacher at the Rehavia neighorbood-based school caused the mass infections, after coming in to teach despite knowing he was sick.
Students confirmed this account of the sick teacher in interviews with public radio on Sunday morning, with one also telling Army Radio that the teaching staff “derided our concerns. Teachers said the coronavirus was over.”
Earlier reports said the alleged “super-spreader” was a student.
All teaching staff and students were in the process of being tested and the school has been shuttered. On Sunday, all were set to enter a precautionary home isolation through June 9 to prevent the further spread of the virus.
According to the Kan public broadcaster, there were 134 new virus cases linked to the high school. This was not immediately confirmed by the Health Ministry.
While the Gymnasia school was the epicenter of the latest outbreak, additional confirmed cases and suspected infections prompted the closures of some 17 schools and daycare centers around the country, according to Channel 12.
These included another four schools in Jerusalem. One student and one teacher were diagnosed at Jerusalem’s Hartman High School, causing the school to close its doors until the end of the week and resume online studying. The teacher also teaches at the Gymnasia Rehavia. The seventh-grade student likely caught the virus from a Gymnasia student during a basketball class.
An 11th-grade girl at the Jerusalem High School for the Arts was diagnosed with the virus on Sunday, along with a fifth-grader at the Zalman Aran school in the capital. An eight-grade girl at the Masorti High School in Jerusalem also contracted COVID-19, according to Channel 12.
Drive-thru testing centers in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv reopened over the weekend in response to the uptick in cases.
In central Israel, one seventh-grade student was diagnosed at Katzir High School in Holon, sending four classes and six teachers into isolation.
Eight cases were also found at a high school yeshiva in Kiryat Yearim, sending students into quarantine. In Kiryat Yearim, one-third of the students tested for COVID-19 were found to be infected. Not all students have been tested, raising suspicion that the scale of the outbreak there hasn’t been fully discovered.
Another school, Makif Gimel in Beersheba, decided to send teachers and all its seventh-graders, 150 students, into isolation after one student, whose mother caught the virus several days ago, started displaying symptoms.
Despite the sharp increase in recent days in coronavirus infection rates focused on education institutions, cabinet ministers decided against a sweeping closure of schools during an overnight meeting.
“There is no reason that due to an incident in Jerusalem, we should close down [schools in] Kiryat Shmona or Eilat,” Education Minister Yoav Gallant told Army Radio on Sunday. “The problem is not with schools, but with adherence to the rules.”
Israel had 1,917 active cases as of Saturday night, with a majority under medical care at home and just 116 in hospitals. Of those cases, 36 were in serious condition with 34 requiring mechanical ventilation. Since the outbreak reached the country earlier this year, 284 people have died of the virus.
Health officials are concerned that fewer people are getting tested. While at the height of the pandemic around 13,000-14,000 people were being tested every day, those numbers have dropped considerably in recent weeks as fewer people experience symptoms.
Newly appointed Health Minister Yuli Edelstein warned Sunday of a possible new lockdown, saying the rate of positive results out of all daily coronavirus tests was now five times higher than several days ago. At a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Edelstein noted the spike, adding that “either it all turns out to be okay, or we will be back under lockdown, and much faster than people think.”
“I hear people asking, ‘What is the panic about? This is just an isolated incident and it has nothing to do with me,'” he said. “I also hear voices asking what does a 40-person increase matter in a country of nine million. But even if you disregard the number of sick in the Gymnasia school, we see there is an increase.”
Edelstein said that while a week ago the rate of positive results from COVID-19 tests was about 0.5 percent, that figure jumped to 2.5% on Saturday, with 28 infections confirmed out of 1,012 tests.
Stressing that Israel has the capacity to test 15,000 people per day, he called on anyone who had symptoms to get tested: “If the public cooperates, we will know what the real numbers are among the population.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a Saturday night press briefing, also said new restrictions could be introduced if the number of cases pick up. The next few days will be a “test,” he said.