Bnei Brak, Beitar Illit, Elad in top infection tier as cabinet to meet on rules

Ultra-Orthodox community sees further rise in transmission rates; nearly 2,500 medical workers in isolation as healthcare workers start to get vaccinated

Illustrative: Ultra-Orthodox Jews walk in Bnei Brak on October 14, 2020, during a nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
Illustrative: Ultra-Orthodox Jews walk in Bnei Brak on October 14, 2020, during a nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

The Health Ministry announced on Sunday morning that a number of predominantly ultra-Orthodox localities were classified as high-infection areas as ministers were set to meet on renewed restrictions both nationwide and on a local level.

Bnei Brak, Beitar Illit and Elad were classified as “red” areas, meaning they would be placed under further restrictions. Additionally the West Bank settlement of Givat Ze’ev; Yafa an-Naseriyye, an Arab town in the Galilee; and a number of Jerusalem neighborhoods were also named as high-infection zones.

Additionally, data released by the ministry showed that as transmission rates were increasing across the country, they were rising at a faster rate within the ultra-Orthodox community.

The Health Ministry said on Sunday the overall basic reproduction rate, which represents the average number of people every carrier infects, had risen to 1.25. Any reading over one signals the spread of the virus is accelerating.

A Magen David Adom medical worker test Israelis for coronavirus at a mobile testing site in Jerusalem on December 16, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

However, the rate was far higher among the ultra-Orthodox community, at 1.7, signaling an acceleration in the spread of COVID-19 in Haredi areas.

An initial virus outbreak earlier this year hit the community hard after some top rabbis advised against adopting Health Ministry rules that were aimed at curbing the virus spread but would have disrupted ultra-Orthodox community life.

Pushback against some Health Ministry directives continue in some parts of the community and additionally many members of the community live in crowded conditions, which has helped accelerate the spread of the infection.

Sunday’s data was released as ministers were set to meet to discuss reimposing restrictions as infection rates continued to rise across the country.

Israel is contending with a marked rise in new COVID-19 cases, with daily infections surging to almost 3,000 from Tuesday through Friday, the highest caseloads in over two months.

According to Hebrew-language media reports, health officials were expected to demand that all commerce be shut down as early as Monday.

Additionally, ministers were set to discuss closing some school grades in areas classified as “red” or “orange,” with high or moderately high infection rates.

The coronavirus cabinet was also to hold talks on the new, more infectious coronavirus strain found in the United Kingdom.

A worker cleans a bus stop near Piccadilly Circus in central London on December 18, 2020. (Tolga Akmen/AFP)

Hebrew-language media reports suggested a number of options were to be discussed, including extra testing for travelers from the UK, compelling them to quarantine in hotels rather than at home, and even shutting down the airport to all international flights.

The ministry said 1,866 new coronavirus cases were confirmed on Saturday, as renewed lockdown measures to contain the pandemic appeared close to being imposed and the country kicked off its mass vaccination drive.

The number of new cases was down slightly from previous days, though the number of tests performed was also a little lower as testing tends to drop off on weekends and holidays.

Another 150 cases recorded on Sunday morning brought the number of infections since the pandemic began to 373,368.

With no reported overnight deaths, the number of fatalities in Israel since the start of the pandemic held steady at 3,074.

There were 447 people in serious condition, including 110 on ventilators. Of the 24,077 total active cases, another 149 were in moderate condition and the rest had mild or no symptoms.

The 60,804 tests carried out on Saturday, with 3.1 percent of them returning a positive result.

As Israel officially kicked off its vaccination drive with the administering of shots to medical staff, the Health Ministry said that 2,473 healthcare workers were currently in isolation.

An Israeli medical worker receives a COVID-19 vaccine, at Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center on December 20, 2020 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Israel’s vaccine drive officially began on Sunday morning, with medical staff, the president, and the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff set to receive the coronavirus shot throughout the day.

From Monday, Israelis aged 60-plus and at-risk populations can receive a vaccine at health maintenance organizations (HMOs) with an appointment.

The government hopes to inoculate some 60,000 people per day and as many as two million Israelis by the end of January. But Hebrew media reports said the first week would serve as a pilot program, tamping down expectations that hundreds of thousands of Israelis would be vaccinated within days.

An Israeli medical worker holds a coronavirus vaccination, at Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center on December 20, 2020 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The vaccine comes in two doses, administered three weeks apart.

The Health Ministry has laid out targets on the distribution of the shot.

After inoculating those over 60, Israelis working in jobs with a high risk of exposure to the virus, such as teachers, social workers, first responders, and prison staff (prisoners will also get priority); and Israel Defense Forces soldiers and other security personnel will be vaccinated.

Last will come the rest of the population, with a timeline depending on how many doses arrive in Israel and the level of demand by the priority groups.

A number of groups will not receive the vaccine at this stage, including people who have recovered from COVID-19; women who are breastfeeding or pregnant — or soon planning to get pregnant; people with a history of severe allergic reactions; and Israelis under 16.

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