Official: Lockdown must go on till drop to 7% positive tests

Cabinet mulls new restrictions as treasury warns of ‘irreversible’ economic harm

Finance Ministry chief urges health officials to resist more severe lockdown despite runaway infections; ministers expected to review fresh limits on workforce, synagogue closures

Israelis wearing face masks due to the coronavirus outbreak near a closed restaurant in Jerusalem, May 3, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Israelis wearing face masks due to the coronavirus outbreak near a closed restaurant in Jerusalem, May 3, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

With the cabinet set to convene to consider further tightening of the coronavirus lockdown amid runaway infection rates, Israel’s top treasury official warned Tuesday that further choking the economy could cause “irreversible” harm.

Meanwhile, Health Ministry Deputy Director General Itamar Grotto said the Health Ministry would demand as a condition to end the lockdown a drop to a 7 percent positive rate in national testing. Positive tests are currently at some 11%-12%. If tests remain at the current average rate of some 50,000 a day, that would mean around 3,500 cases a day or fewer.

At its meeting, the cabinet is expected to review new restrictions just five days after declaring a three-week lockdown that shuttered schools and many businesses. Amid fears that the health care system will be overwhelmed by new serious cases in the coming days, Hebrew media reported that the new restrictions to be considered include further limiting attendance at workplaces, closing synagogues and placing new limitations on public prayers, and shutting all markets, including those selling “four species” plants for the Sukkot holiday.

Ministers will also reportedly consider restrictions on public transportation and flights.

In a letter to Health Ministry Director General Chezy Levy, Finance Ministry Director General Keren Terner Eyal warned that new restrictions on work would have “a dramatic and painful cost for the economy that will reach into the billions of shekels in the near term, as well as dramatic economic and social ramifications over the long term.”

She noted that morbidity figures track roughly two weeks behind measures meant to contain them, “so any decision on new steps that will further hurt the economy just days after the [existing] restrictions were put in place, and before we have a clear view of the health effects (and certainly of the economic effects) from shuttering commerce, restaurants and entertainment, and the education system, is premature.”

Terner Eyal argued that the health benefits of new restrictions are not commensurate with the economic damage they are expected to cause, which carries a long-term health cost as well.

A police officer stops cars at a checkpoint in Jerusalem on September 20, 2020, amid a nationwide coronavirus lockdown. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“The step with the greatest economic cost of all would be the closure of workplaces, which risks irreversible damage in the medium and long term,” she wrote, urging “that we avoid another severe blow to the economy before the public and business owners have had a chance to implement the significant preventative measures already in place.”

The warning from the Finance Ministry comes a day after Levy warned that the health care system was on the brink of being overloaded in some places.

Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center and Ashdod’s Assuta Medical Center said Monday they would no longer be able to take in new coronavirus patients because they had run out of room for them. The announcements came as Levy instructed hospitals to suspend elective surgeries and dedicate further resources to the pandemic response.

“We expect to end the next 10 days with an increase of 200-300 serious, ventilated or critical patients,” Levy wrote on Monday to hospital administrators. “I ask you to treat this situation as an emergency situation for the healthcare system. Hospitals must end elective, non-essential procedures.”

According to the Health Ministry, in addition to Shaare Zedek and Assuta, the coronavirus wards at a number of major hospitals around the country have topped 100 percent capacity — Jerusalem’s Hadassah Ein Kerem (143%), Netanya’s Laniado hospital (111%), Ramat Gan’s Sheba Medical Center (119%), and Rehovot’s Kaplan Medical Center (121%).

Soroka Medical Center staff members at the hospital’s coronavirus ward, in Be’er Sheva, on September 15, 2020. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

The health argument seemed to be winning on Tuesday, with ministers telling the media ahead of the cabinet meeting that curbing the infection rate was the top priority at the moment.

“We won’t have a choice except to strengthen the restrictions in a staggered way, probably after Yom Kippur,” Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn said Tuesday morning.

“If the lockdown doesn’t work,” said Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, “then in a month all those estimates that the seriously ill will reach 800 won’t be relevant anymore — we’ll have passed the 1,200 mark.”

Two academics advising the cabinet’s coronavirus committee, Yinon Ashkenazi of Hebrew University and Eran Segal of the Weizmann Institute, put the figure higher. By this very weekend, they warned, Israel looked set to pass the 800 mark — a number frequently cited as the upper limit that Israel’s hospitals could reasonably cope with — and by mid-October is expected to climb to 1,600.

The empty Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv, on September 20, 2020 amid the second coronavirus lockdown. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

But new steps may nevertheless face resistance. In a consultation between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein and Chief Rabbi David Lau, Lau warned against closing synagogues “if there isn’t also enforcement when it comes to other gatherings. You can’t close just the synagogues, people won’t listen,” he said.

Police released figures on Tuesday from lockdown enforcement efforts that showed nearly 2,000 fines had been given out over the past 24 hours. Of them, 1,035 were handed out to those who had left their homes without a valid reason, 851 to individuals not wearing a face mask in public, and 32 to those caught violating quarantine requirements after they had been in contact with a confirmed carrier. Quarantine violations carry a NIS 5,000 shekel ($1,450) fine.

The number of seriously ill was at 668 on Tuesday morning, according to Health Ministry figures, a jump of over 130 in a week. Of them, 159 are on ventilators.

The death toll since the start of the pandemic was at 1,285.

Monday saw 3,858 cases added to the national case count (193,374), but with lower test numbers of 34,400. The percentage of positive tests remained very high, at 11.6%.

With hospitals overflowing across the country, Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Monday ordered the military to prepare to establish a field hospital for coronavirus patients.

Jerusalem, Israel’s largest city, has the most active coronavirus cases — 5,645 — with over 3,000 diagnosed in the past week, while Ashdod places third nationwide, with 1,902. The Health Ministry also said Monday night that 4,057 medical staff are currently in quarantine nationwide, including 1,068 doctors and 494 nurses.

Despite initial success in tackling the pandemic, Israel has in recent weeks become one of the countries with the highest number of daily cases per capita, and has surpassed the US in recent days in the total of number of cases per capita.

A Shaare Zedek staffer wears protective gear as he takes a swab from a woman to test for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), outside the coronavirus unit at the hospital in Jerusalem on September 14, 2020. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

According to the latest data from Johns Hopkins University, which tracks worldwide coronavirus numbers, as of September 21 Israel has 2,115.1 cases per 100,000 people, while America has 2,079.9. It remains behind such countries as Brazil and Peru.

At the same time, Israel’s death rate per million inhabitants stands at 133, compared to the world average of 123.3, the data showed.

Israel’s coronavirus czar, Ronni Gamzu, warned Sunday that virus numbers were reaching “emergency” levels, and ordered hospitals to add new virus wards.

An employee puts away the furniture of a restaurant in the coastal city of Tel Aviv on September 18, 2020, ahead of a nationwide lockdown to tackle a spike in coronavirus cases. (JACK GUEZ/AFP)

To help ease economic concerns and convince Israelis to obey the measures, the cabinet approved late Monday a NIS 10.5 billion ($3 billion) aid package that helps those affected by the new lockdown.

The cabinet also unanimously approved a temporary 10% pay cut for ministers and lawmakers, as well as any civil servants earning 10% more than Knesset members (NIS 45,201 or $13,000 per month).

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