Former chief rabbi Lau diagnosed with COVID

Blue and White, Haredi parties said to oppose extending lockdown beyond Thursday

Cabinet to meet later this week to decide how to proceed, as Health Ministry pushes to keep restrictions in place; 44 new fatalities reported over weekend

The empty roads of Tel Aviv during a nationwide lockdown, January 16, 2021. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
The empty roads of Tel Aviv during a nationwide lockdown, January 16, 2021. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

The cabinet is set to decide this week whether to extend the tightened coronavirus lockdown which began a week ago and is set to expire next Thursday night.

Channel 12 News reported Saturday that while the Health Ministry is pushing to extend the tightened lockdown measures, opposition from Blue and White and ultra-Orthodox parties could lead to them expiring Thursday as scheduled.

The network cited unnamed ministers criticizing the timing of the expected cabinet meeting on Wednesday, one day before the restrictions’ expiration, saying it was meant to reduce opposition to extending the lockdown. Sources close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denied such a motivation and said they wanted the most up-to-date figures possible.

The Health Ministry is set to argue that if the lockdown isn’t extended, the basic reproduction of the pandemic rate won’t drop below 1, the figure necessary for the virus’s spread to go down. But the report said officials believe it will be hard to secure ultra-Orthodox support, as an extension would mean schools will be ordered to remain closed for longer.

The Health Ministry said Saturday that 8,013 new coronavirus cases were confirmed Friday, as infections and fatalities continued to surge over the weekend while Israel remained under lockdown.

Police at a temporary roadblock by the beach promenade in Tel Aviv, during a nationwide lockdown. January 16, 2021. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Along with another 2,607 cases since midnight, the number of infections recorded since the pandemic began rose to 541,864. The number of active cases climbed to 82,551, with 1,082 people in serious condition, including 247 on ventilators.

The death toll stood at 3,943, with 44 fatalities at least over the weekend.

The ministry said 95,581 tests were performed yesterday, with 8.6 percent coming back positive.

According to the ministry, 2,027,835 have received the first dose of a coronavirus vaccine and 205,579 have received the second.

Coronavirus czar Nachman Ash told Channel 12 that “We’re at peak morbidity” and said the high number of serious patients was placing a burden on hospitals, but he did not believe they faced a risk of being overwhelmed.

Friday and Saturday saw roads throughout the country largely empty as police stepped up enforcement of the lockdown rules and handed out thousands of fines to rule breakers.

On Friday Ronni Gamzu, the former coronavirus czar, told Channel 12 Israel was in the “final stages” of the pandemic, after data showed the country was seeing clear results of its massive vaccination drive.

Ronni Gamzu, CEO of Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center and former virus czar receives a COVID-19 vaccine, at Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center (Ichilov), on December 20, 2020 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“We are in the final stages of the coronavirus. Israel, with the scale of its vaccine drive, is showing the world that there is an exit strategy,” Gamzu, who has since returned to his job as director of Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv, said.

His assessment appeared to be shared by Netanyahu, who was recorded earlier this week telling a closed-door meeting that “It’s over.”

The confidence comes with Israel having vaccinated nearly a quarter of the eligible population and clear signs the shots are having an impact.

Netanyahu vowed last week that Israel would ramp up its vaccine drive further, to a target of administering 170,000 shots a day, as a new batch of hundreds of thousands of doses of Pfizer’s vaccine touched down at Ben Gurion Airport.

By late March, Israel will have vaccinated 5.2 million citizens against the coronavirus, according to a plan drawn up by the Health Ministry.

Channel 12 revealed Friday that the percentage of seriously ill over 60s out of the total confirmed cases had dropped drastically in recent days from 2.5% to 1.5%.

“We got used to seeing that 2.5% of the seriously ill were over 60, that has suddenly dropped,” Gamzu said.

At least 75% of the population over 60 has received at least one shot already, indicating that the vaccine was already having an effect, even though its true impact was only expected to come after the second dose.

“This 1.5% is unprecedented, I have not seen this throughout the whole period. The vaccine has a clear effect,” he said. “This shows the beginning of the end.”

A woman receives a coronavirus shot at a vaccination station on January 16, 2021 in the coastal city of Herzliya (Gili Yaari /Flash90)

Gamzu praised the government and Netanyahu for securing the vaccinations but said the real credit was due to the Israeli public.

“The major success belongs to the people of Israel, the public that has gone to vaccinate with great faith, saying I believe in the vaccination,” said Gamzu. “This is not something you are seeing everywhere around the world and it needs to be said.”

The optimism comes as Israel said Friday that all Israelis over the age of 45 will be eligible to receive the first COVID-19 shot through their health providers starting Sunday as Israel’s vaccine drive continues to expand.

Coinciding with the launch of the vaccination campaign has been a surge in coronavirus cases, with some 9,000 daily new infections diagnosed in recent days.

There has also been a sharp rise in fatalities and the number of patients in serious condition from COVID-19 complications.

However, Gamzu said that both the number of overall new cases and of those seriously ill appeared to be leveling off, and the trend was turning.

Former chief rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, receives a COVID-19 vaccine at Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center, December 20, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90/ via JTA)

Meanwhile on Saturday former Ashkenazi chief rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau tested positive for coronavirus, days after he received the second dose of a coronavirus vaccine, according to Hebrew media reports.

It is not immediately clear when Lau, 83, was infected with the virus, but he may well have contracted it before receiving the second dose, as the virus usually takes some time to show up in tests.

Lau was reportedly feeling well and did not have any symptoms.

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