Israel could yet be forced to enter a fourth lockdown to combat the spread of the coronavirus ahead of the upcoming general election, set for March 23, a senior health official suggested on Friday.
He spoke as the country’s virus transmission rate inched passed 1, indicating the pandemic is once again expanding its spread, according to Health Ministry data.
“We are concerned about the increase in infection in the coming days,” coronavirus czar Nachman Ash told 103FM Radio, adding that “if we don’t act responsibly, and if [citizens] don’t follow the guidelines, the possibility of a fourth lockdown before the election exists.”
Asked about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s statement to Fox News on Thursday that the pandemic was in Israel’s rearview mirror, Ash said: “I don’t know what the prime minister meant.”
Ministry figures showed the virus’s basic reproduction number, or R-number, was at 1.01 Friday morning. The R-number is the number of new cases stemming from each coronavirus infection, or the number of people who caught the virus from each infected person. Any number lower than 1 means the pandemic is slowing down, while a number above 1 means it is expanding. The figures are based on new case numbers from 10 days earlier due to the virus’s incubation period.
The R-number had been below 1 since late January.
However, coronavirus testing also showed its lowest positivity rate in months, with some 3,600 tests coming back positive Thursday out of 92,000 tests — or some 4 percent.
Serious cases also remained at their lowest number since December, with 690 patients.
The latest data came as Israel prepares to take the next step in removing coronavirus restrictions on Sunday, with the reopening of restaurants, cafes, event venues, attractions and hotels — with some of the activities available only to those with Green Passes signaling they are immunized against the virus.
Netanyahu claimed Thursday that Israel was largely done with the coronavirus, saying that it was the first country in the world to put the pandemic behind it, thanks to its quick and efficient vaccination campaign.
Israel is “the first country in the world to emerge from corona. With this green passport, you can go to restaurants, you can go to theaters, you can go to sports events. This is it. We’re coming out,” Netanyahu said during an interview with Fox News, describing the Green Pass system, which allows the fully vaccinated or recovered to attend various public sites and events.
Netanyahu said, “Look, I don’t think we’re coming out completely. We’re going to have to wear a mask for some time. But we’re behind it.”
However, unnamed health officials told the Maariv newspaper that there were concerns the reopening plan was being influenced by Netanyahu’s political considerations ahead of the March 23 elections.
“In recent days there has been a general disappointment in the [Health] Ministry about the prime minister’s conduct. He has been very much with us all the way but we suddenly feel that the election is affecting his considerations,” the source said.
Nadav Davidovitch, Director of the School of Public Health at Ben Gurion University of the Negev and an advisor to the government on the pandemic, appeared to echo the same concerns as the virus czar.
“It will be a massive failure if we reach a fourth lockdown,” Davidovitch told Army Radio on Friday, adding that “we saw how in the third lockdown the effectiveness dropped significantly, so I don’t believe a fourth lockdown will even be effective.
“We are in a good position now, but we must not reach a fourth lockdown — we have all the tools to prevent that, such as vaccines, fast tests and proper supervision on those entering Ben Gurion Airport,” Davidovitch said.
Israel’s land and air gateways have been largely closed since January 25, with Ben Gurion Airport shuttered for all but a few special flights by Israeli airlines to bring back citizens stranded abroad.
Health officials are concerned that more contagious strains of the coronavirus could arrive in the country, as was the case with the so-called British mutation which now accounts for almost all new coronavirus infections in the country. Some other strains are feared to be more resistant to vaccines.
According to ministry figures, there were 3,628 new cases diagnosed on Thursday, bringing the tally since the start of the pandemic to 795,454, including 41,047 active cases.
Of them, 690 were in serious condition, including 268 classified as critical, and 225 on ventilators.
The death toll rose to 5,832.
Additionally, 4,901,143 Israelis have received the first vaccine dose, of whom 3,654,797 have also received the second. Several million Israelis are ineligible for the vaccine, most of them under the age of 16.
According to Prof. Eran Segal of the Weizmann Institute, some 87% of all Israelis aged 16 and up who aren’t ultra-Orthodox or Arab have either recovered from COVID-19 or received at least one vaccine dose.
The equivalent figure for the ultra-Orthodox community was 72%, while the lowest immunization rate, 64%, has been observed among Arab Israelis.