Israel’s coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu said Saturday he expected the country’s daily coronavirus infection rate to drop to 2,000 this week, after it moved down to some 3,000-4,000 daily cases in recent days.
“If we continue on this path, we’ll be prepared for winter,” Gamzu said as he toured the northern town of Julis.
Israel has been under a national lockdown for the past three weeks to contain a raging second wave of the pandemic, which at one point reached some 9,000 daily cases. However, recent days have seen both the number of daily cases and the percentage of positive tests go down amid sweeping restrictions on the public.
A Tel Aviv police officer died of the virus Saturday after coming into contact with infected Israelis as part of his job. He had been hospitalized in serious condition in recent days.
Gamzu called on the public to “go and get tested” over any suspicion of infection. “We can not beat coronavirus without testing. A healthy person can be infected and infect [others],” he said.
Gamzu added that some cities could emerge from the closure while others remain under lockdown in the coming days, according to the so-called traffic-light program that divides towns into red, orange and green by the severity of the pandemic.
Gamzu said the government should give local authorities more responsibilities in handling the pandemic, but said this would require “a budget, resources, authorities, help and understanding.”
He also addressed numerous recent cases of public figures breaking lockdown restrictions to meet with relatives, saying such people “should watch themselves doubly” in order to serve as an example to the rest of the public.
Noting the mass weddings among the Arab and Druze population in the early summer, which is believed to have contributed greatly to infections in those communities, Gamzu said: “There was a month and a half of weddings here that unfortunately took a very heavy toll on communities and hospitals.
“Exiting the lockdown does not mean entering weddings and reckless gatherings. The achievements you’ve made here were reached with hard work and at a heavy price, and we need to maintain them,” he said.
Thursday saw Israel at its lowest test positivity rate in a month, with 8 percent of tests coming back with COVID-19 diagnoses. Positivity rates had hovered at around 12%-13% for much of recent weeks, at one point reaching a high of 15%.
On Saturday the national case count stood at 282,646, of which 59,578 were active cases. Seriously ill patients stood at 850, of whom 233 were on ventilators. The death toll was at 1,879.
Gamzu warned in an interview with Channel 12 Friday that there may be a spike in cases in the coming weeks as a result of those who violated health guidelines against crowding over the Sukkot holiday, which ends Saturday night.
But, he expressed optimism that the government will be able to begin easing the lockdown either at the end of next week or at the beginning of the following week. However, he warned that “there will be some areas where we will have to carry on with the closure.”
The current lockdown, Israel’s second since the pandemic started, began on September 18 before Rosh Hashanah and was tightened a week later. It is currently set to end on October 14.
It has been marked by clashes between enforcing police and ultra-Orthodox protesters, as well as between police and anti-government protesters who are calling for Netanyahu’s resignation due to his ongoing corruption trial and the government’s handling of the virus outbreak.
On Thursday a senior Health Ministry official said that the lockdown has helped to curb the spread of COVID-19, but cautioned that large swaths of the country are still seeing high rates of infection.
At a press conference, Sharon Elrai, acting head of the ministry’s public health services division, displayed a chart showing the percentage of Israelis living in “red” areas with the highest levels of infection. After peaking at 65 percent on September 28, she said there has been a “gradual decline” in the rate, which is now at 40%.
“This isn’t good enough. We need to drop more before we can loosen the restrictions,” Elrai said. “But there’s no doubt we see from this that [the lockdown] is working.”
She said the Health Ministry was working with other government ministries to draft a strategy for reopening the country, which she insisted would be “slow” and “gradual” and based on declining infection levels. Elrai also said morbidity rates were headed “in the right direction.”
According to Health Ministry figures released Friday evening, ultra-Orthodox Israelis account for a disproportionately high number of the total coronavirus cases across the country.
Twenty-five percent of tests conducted in Haredi towns came back positive, Channel 12 reported, citing figures from the Health Ministry. The countrywide positive test rate stood at 7.4%
In addition, Haredi locales made up for over 60% of the Health Ministry designated virus hotspots, Channel 12 reported. Overall, the number of hotspots nationwide dropped from 130 last week to 80 as of Friday night.
Channel 12 also cited figures from Weizmann Institute of Science Professor Eran Segal showing that “46% of the contagion at the moment is in the ultra-Orthodox community,” in what appeared to be a reference to the percentage of active cases countrywide. The ultra-Orthodox make up some 12% of the total population in Israel.
There has been growing criticism of Haredi communities for not adhering to government guidelines, including continuing to host mass gatherings over the High Holiday period.