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Average daily virus cases at highest level since October, task force warns

Positivity rate remains above 2% and transmission rate continues to inch upward as government plots school reopenings

Jerusalem residents wearing a face mask shop for grocery at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on November 22, 2020, as Israel steps out of coronavirus lockdown and rolls back restrictions. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Jerusalem residents wearing a face mask shop for grocery at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on November 22, 2020, as Israel steps out of coronavirus lockdown and rolls back restrictions. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The daily average of coronavirus cases reached the highest level in nearly a month on Monday, ahead of the return of more schoolchildren to class on Tuesday.

The average of new daily COVID-19 cases over the past week stood at 742, the highest rate since October 28, according to the country’s military-run coronavirus taskforce.

The figure is the latest indication that the spread of the virus may be re-accelerating, even as the government pushes ahead with plans to have the country exit its second lockdown.

According to the Health Ministry, 745 new coronavirus cases were diagnosed on Sunday, with 2.3 percent of tests returning positive.

Of the 8,456 active cases, 298 were in serious condition, 130 of them on ventilators. Another 71 were in moderate condition, with the rest displaying mild or no symptoms. The death toll stood at 2,806, adding another 49 fatalities since Sunday morning.

The taskforce on Sunday had warned that for the first time in a month and a half, the previous week had seen a rise in the number of patients hospitalized and those defined to be in serious condition. The taskforce said that a continued easing of restrictions would lead to a rise in the morbidity rate.

Hospital team members move patients to the new coronavirus ward of Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem on November16, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The transmission rate rose above 1 in the last days of October for the first time since a national lockdown began to be rolled back earlier in the month, and continued to rise before slackening slightly in early November. The figures released Monday, which are based on new case numbers from 10 days earlier due to the virus’s incubation period, showed the figure on the rise again, hitting 1.07.

A transmission rate of over 1 indicates that the case numbers will begin to expand exponentially.

On October 15, the coronavirus cabinet decided that the lockdown exit should only start if the transmission rate is under 0.8. Under the Health Ministry’s plan, rollback measures are supposed to be halted if the rate rises.

Nonetheless, the government has pressed on in reopening additional school grades.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told ministers Sunday that school would resume as planned for fifth and sixth grade students later this week, and that grades 11-12 will follow them in hitting the books the week after.

Illustration of an empty classroom at Cramim school in Beit Hakerem, Jerusalem on October 21 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Those grades will “open as planned, that won’t change,” Netanyahu said according to Hebrew media reports of remarks he made at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting.

Currently, grades 1-4 are back in class, with grades 5-6 expected to join them on Tuesday, and grades 11-12 to return to the classroom next Tuesday. Grades 7-10 are continuing distanced learning.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said Sunday he supported a return to school for all grades in cities with low infection rates, but only if it is not in concert with other easing of coronavirus restrictions.

Health officials had previously raised objections to the swift return of schoolchildren to class as the school system was seen as a major contributor to the spike in cases after an initial lockdown earlier this year was lifted, and that led to the second closure in September.

Full school opening in low infection areas is expected to go up for discussion on Monday at a meeting of the coronavirus cabinet to discuss the government’s next steps on the coronavirus pandemic.

Israel imposed a lockdown on September 18 that succeeded in bringing down surging infection rates but that also paralyzed much of the economy and public life, as well as shuttering the entire education system. The government has since begun lifting the restrictions but health officials have sounded alarms as the drop in infection rates first slowed, and then reversed.

Officials, led by Netanyahu and Edelstein, have warned that if the number of daily cases diagnosed is not brought back under control a third lockdown could be looming.

Alongside the worrying statistics, Israelis had good news on the vaccine front in the past couple weeks, with officials negotiating deals with pharma companies PfizerModerna, and AstraZeneca.

Israel is also in talks with Russia to receive its Sputnik V vaccine, though some experts have questioned its opaque certification process.

However, none of the deals guarantees a deadline for the arrival of the vaccines, and with mass global demand, it is still not clear how many vials Israel will get, and when.

Israel is also working on a homegrown vaccine, though it is currently only in phase 1 trials and its development is expected to take months longer than the foreign candidates. Channel 12 reported Friday that it will likely be available to the public this summer.

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