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Israel’s burial societies gird for wave of coronavirus deaths

Refrigerated shipping container that can hold hundreds of bodies prepared in Haifa as epidemiologists warn number of seriously ill expected to double within three weeks

A refrigerated shipping container prepared by the Haifa Chevra Kadisha burial society for holding bodies of coronavirus patients ahead of an expected spike in the pandemic's death toll, September 22, 2020. (Channel 13 screen capture)
A refrigerated shipping container prepared by the Haifa Chevra Kadisha burial society for holding bodies of coronavirus patients ahead of an expected spike in the pandemic's death toll, September 22, 2020. (Channel 13 screen capture)

Amid warnings of an expected spike in deaths from the coronavirus, Israel’s burial services, the Hevra Kadisha, are preparing for a flood of burials.

Among the measures taken in preparation, the Hevra Kadisha of the northern city of Haifa has readied a refrigerated shipping container capable of holding hundreds of corpses awaiting funerals, Channel 13 reported on Wednesday.

Similar shipping containers will be set up around the country as the need arises, the organization told Channel 13 on Tuesday.

The move comes as the number of seriously ill coronavirus patients nears 700, close to the 800 benchmark long cited as the upper limit of Israeli hospitals’ capacity.

A refrigerated shipping container prepared by the Haifa Chevra Kadisha burial society for holding bodies of coronavirus patients ahead of an expected spike in the pandemic’s death toll, September 22, 2020. (Channel 13 screen capture)

Hospitals have been working hard to expand their coronavirus wards, with Haifa’s Rambam Hospital and Petah Tikva’s Beilinson Hospital opening underground wartime facilities to accommodate new patients. But epidemiologists fear the numbers could swell faster than the facilities are being expanded, with one cabinet briefing earlier this week warning that the number of seriously ill is expected to more than double to 1,600 by mid-October.

On Tuesday, the cabinet gathered to consider further tightening coronavirus closure measures, just five days after kicking off a three-week lockdown that shuttered schools and many businesses, along with other restrictions. That meeting ended without decisions, and ministers were set to reconvene Wednesday morning.

Hebrew media reported that the new restrictions under consideration include further limiting attendance at workplaces; closing synagogues and placing new limitations on public prayers; placing new limits on anti-government protests; and shutting all marketplaces, including those selling “four species” plants for the Sukkot holiday.

The lockdown period covers the High Holidays, including next week’s Yom Kippur fast, a peak day for synagogue attendance.

A medical worker in the coronavirus ward of Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba on September 15, 2020. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Tuesday saw an all-time high of 6,861 confirmed coronavirus carriers, according to the Health Ministry.

The higher figure is partly due to increased testing — 59,169 tests were administered Tuesday — but also to a rising percentage of tests returning a positive result.

The positive rate has risen steadily from 2% in May to 11.6% on Tuesday. Earlier this week, Health Ministry Deputy Director General Itamar Grotto, an epidemiologist by training, told the Knesset Coronavirus Committee that the goal of the lockdown measures was to reduce that positive rate to below 7%, and that health officials believe many restrictions should not be lifted until that goal is reached.

According to the latest figures, a total of 200,235 Israelis have been infected, 668 are seriously ill, 159 are on ventilators and 1,285 have died from the virus.

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