Bennett pushes vaccines over lockdown as serious cases hit 5-month high

Prime minister says serious morbidity likely to further climb but warns lockdowns ‘destroying the future of the country,’ and will only be used as a ‘last line of defense’

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett holds a press conference at his office in Jerusalem on August 18, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett holds a press conference at his office in Jerusalem on August 18, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Wednesday pushed back against the prospect of imposing another lockdown amid surging coronavirus cases, touting increased vaccination as the best path to reducing morbidity.

“If Israeli citizens continue to be vaccinated on a large scale, we can overcome the Delta variant,” Bennett said during a televised press conference, referring to the highly contagious strain of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

Bennett said not only Israel but other countries across the globe were having to cope with the Delta strain which he said had created a “new situation” due to its high transmissibility.

The premier spoke as serious cases continued to climb, hitting 600 for the first time since mid-March.

According to the latest Health Ministry figures, there are 59,218 active COVID cases, with 991 hospitalized, 600 in serious condition and 103 on ventilators. Since midnight, there have been 4,583 more confirmed infections Wednesday, with 5.39 percent of tests coming back positive.

The death toll rose to 6,723, with two fatalities since midnight. On Tuesday, 16 people died from COVID complications.

The ministry also reported that 5,866,132 people in Israel have received at least one vaccine shot, while 5,428,573 received two doses. Another 1,166,624 have received a booster shot, which Israel recently began administering to people older than 60, becoming the first country to do so. It has since expanded eligibility to those over 50 and also giving boosters to the immunocompromised.

A man receives a third dose of the coronavirus at a health center in Katzrin, on the Golan Heights, August 16, 2021. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)

“The decision was not easy for us, but we knew it was the right way to fight the coronavirus,” Bennett said of the booster shots.

In dealing with the current wave of morbidity, Bennett said the government’s aim was to look out for both the health and livelihoods of Israelis.

“Not the entire world is through the prism of coronavirus. There is making a living, the economy, there’s a future for the country,” he said.

Bennett warned serious cases were likely to rise further but criticized lockdowns as a tool for dealing with coronavirus, highlighting their economic toll.

“A lockdown is the easiest step for the government. Lots of people say, ‘press on the lockdown button… and everything is in order,’ expect for one thing. In doing so we are destroying the future of the country,” he said.

He added: “A lockdown is the last line of defense, only when all other options were exhausted.”

People with face masks on Jaffa Street in Jerusalem, August 18, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Bennett argued continued lockdowns would leave Israel saddled with debt and without funds to buy key military equipment and advanced medical gear, “because we wasted it all.”

“A vaccinated country is an alternative to lockdowns,” he said.

According to Bennett, of 105 people who died of COVID in the last week, 103 were either not vaccinated or had not completed the immunization process. He did not say if completing the process included a third dose, which is being given to Israelis over age 50.

Bennett said vaccines were losing effectiveness over time in preventing infection, necessitating the booster shots.

“Now we know that the third shot not only restores protection to what it was, but also likely provides us better protection than before after the second dose,” he asserted. While he noted the announcement by US health officials to roll out booster vaccinations for all Americans, he did not announce any plans to expand Israel’s booster program to people younger than 50.

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz said Wednesday that officials were looking into offering booster shots to those as young as 40, as well as school staff.

The prime minister also said the government’s tools for dealing with the surging morbidity were increasing hospital capacity, requiring masks indoors, reimposing Green Pass restrictions and ramping up the number of tests conducted each day, among other measures.

A Channel 12 news report Wednesday indicated that hospitals were themselves becoming infection vectors, with no Green Pass restrictions on medical centers.

A Magen David Adom health worker takes a swab sample from a teenager at a COVID-19 testing facility in Jerusalem on August 18, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Earlier Wednesday, Israel reimposed caps on gatherings and reintroduced rules requiring social distancing in businesses. The new restrictions are aimed at slowing down the recent surge in infections that have taken the daily caseload to highs not seen for half a year, after the country had reduced the spread to barely a dozen new cases a day, on average.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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