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Daily cases swell to highest level in a month as grades 5-6 return to class

300,000 kids head back to school; task force notes rise in hospitalizations not linked to testing; health chief warns against easing too many restrictions

Illustrative: Children enter the Beit Hakerem school in Jerusalem on November 24, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Illustrative: Children enter the Beit Hakerem school in Jerusalem on November 24, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The daily number of new virus cases reached its highest level in just over a month on Tuesday as hundreds of thousands of students in grades 5-6 returned to school.

According to the Health Ministry, 943 new coronavirus cases were diagnosed on Monday, with 1.8 percent of tests returning positive — a slight drop in the positivity rate. The last time the number of daily cases was at a comparable level was October 22.

Of the 8,791 active cases, 275 were in serious condition, 120 of them on ventilators. Another 72 were in moderate condition, with the rest displaying mild or no symptoms. The death toll stood at 2,811.

The figures were the latest indication that the spread of the virus may be re-accelerating, even as the government pushes ahead with reopening the country after its second lockdown.

Clowns wearing protective equipment entertain a COVID-19 patient in the intensive care ward for coronavirus patients at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, Nov. 23, 2020. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

The transmission rate rose above 1 in the last days of October for the first time since a national lockdown began to be rolled back earlier in the month, and continued to rise before slackening slightly in early November. The figures released Tuesday, which are based on new case numbers from 10 days earlier due to the virus’s incubation period, showed the figure at 1.07.

A transmission rate of over 1 indicates that case numbers will begin to expand exponentially.

A military coronavirus task force repeated its warning on Tuesday that there was an increase in the number of new hospitalizations and the number of patients in serious condition with COVID-19. The report noted that these figures were not connected to testing rates, and were a sign that the virus was spreading.

The coronavirus cabinet had initially decided that the lockdown exit should only start if the transmission rate is under 0.8. Under the Health Ministry’s plan, rollback measures are supposed to be halted if the rate rises. The government has ignored that benchmark, however, pressing on with easing restrictions.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Education Minister Yoav Gallant visit the Tali Bayit Vegan elementary school in Jerusalem, on September 05, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

Around 300,000 children in grades 5-6 returned to the classroom on Tuesday morning and will do so at least three days a week. To free up the educational resources required for the move, grades 1-2 returned to learning in full classes instead of pods of smaller groups of children.

Following a marathon debate, the coronavirus cabinet early Tuesday approved Education Minister Yoav Gallant’s plan to reopen most schools across the country, with high schoolers in areas designated green and yellow going back to school on Sunday.

Middle schools will reopen the following Sunday, December 6. Schools in red zones, those with high morbidity rates, will remain closed.

Health Ministry director-general Chezy Levy told the Kan public broadcaster on Tuesday that the easing of restrictions needed to be more gradual and not dictated by political considerations.

Health Ministry Director-General Chezy Levy at a press conference in Jerusalem about the coronavirus on July 13, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“Prioritizing the return of the education and commerce system together is the model of May 2020,” Levy said, referring to the widescale easing of restrictions that many believed sparked the second wave of infections.

“We are not living up to the plan we set out — it started as planned, but on the other hand there are other considerations of the decision-makers. I fear for the fate of all of us and hope I am wrong, but the infections may increase and cause a setback,” Levy warned, referring to the original multi-stage plan that envisioned two-week pauses between the easing of restrictions so that infection trends could be examined.

Israel imposed a lockdown on September 18 that succeeded in bringing down surging infection rates but that also paralyzed much of the economy and public life, as well as shuttering the entire education system. The government has since begun lifting the restrictions but health officials have sounded alarms as the drop in infection rates first slowed, and then reversed.

Officials, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, have warned that if the number of daily cases diagnosed is not brought back under control, a third lockdown could be looming.

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