Hospitals say running out of equipment amid funding crunch

For 1st time since October, Israel’s transmission rate shows outbreak slowing

As trend starts reversing, deputy health minister says that while infections are now waning, the decline is blunted by the fast-spreading British mutation of the virus

A woman receives her second Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine from an army medic, left, at a vaccination center set up on a mall parking lot in Givataim, central Israel, during a nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of the virus, January 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
A woman receives her second Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine from an army medic, left, at a vaccination center set up on a mall parking lot in Givataim, central Israel, during a nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of the virus, January 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Israel’s coronavirus transmission rate dropped below 1 for the first time since the end of October, meaning that the number of active cases is decreasing and the country’s outbreak is now slowing, according to data released by a military task force on Thursday.

The basic reproduction number, or R-number, which is the number of new cases stemming from each coronavirus infection, or the number of people who caught the virus from each infected person, stood at 0.99 — the first time it was lower than 1 in nearly three months.

When an R-number is greater than 1, it is an indication that the number of infections is climbing. In previous lockdowns, ministers and health officials have set a transmission rate of 0.8 as the level at which restrictions can begin to be eased.

The data was released as Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch said that although the country was starting to see a slow downward trend in the number of infections, the decline was undermined by the spread of the more contagious British mutation of the coronavirus.

“There is a continuing trend of a slow decline in morbidity. Yesterday we were at 9.2 percent verified, today it is 9%,” Kisch said, referring to the positivity rate in COVID-19 tests.

MK Yoav Kisch, then chairman of the Interior Affairs Committee at the Knesset, on July 12, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“This lockdown is very much affected by the British mutation… the numbers we used to see go down at a much faster rate, are going down much slower,” Kisch told Army Radio.

Meanwhile, the head of public health at the Health Ministry, Sharon Alroy-Preis, said there were concerns that an Israeli mutation of the virus could develop, and noted that it appeared that most cases of pregnant women seriously ill in Israel with COVID-19 had contracted the British strain.

“In all the pregnant women we genetically sequenced, it appears that they have the English variant [of the virus] — in five out of the five women we were able to get samples from. We have never seen such numbers before,” Alroy-Preis told the Kan public broadcaster.

The health official also said that the violations of virus restrictions seen in some sectors of the ultra-Orthodox community were “shocking.”

“Most of the ultra-Orthodox public does obey the restrictions but to see these pictures is really shocking, I have no other words. At the peak of infections in that sector there is insane morbidity — 35-40%,” she said, referring to recent images of mass gatherings and open schools in some areas. Despite that, Alroy-Preis said there was starting to be a reduction in infection rates.

Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox men from the Toldos Aharon Hasidic dynasty attend a wedding in Beitar Illit, violating coronavirus regulations, January 5, 2021. (Screenshot: Twitter)

Later on Thursday morning, hundreds of medical workers demonstrated outside the Finance Ministry and Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, saying that hospitals were on the verge of collapse due to a funding crisis.

“Our equipment is running out, the drugs are running out, and little by little we are stopping doing more and more activities, even in the coronavirus units,” read a statement issued by Jerusalem’s Hadassah and Shaare Zedek medical centers, Netanya’s Laniado Hospital, Mayanei Hayehushua in Bnei Brak and three facilities in Nazareth.

Hospital directors at the protest tent outside the Finance Ministry on January 17, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The hospitals say that they have been unable to make up the funding shortfalls caused by the increased burden of the pandemic combined with the decline of medical tourism and elective procedures, and that the government failure to make up the difference has left the facilities struggling under the strain.

Health Ministry data released on Thursday showed 8,182 people were diagnosed with the coronavirus a day earlier, bringing the country’s total caseload since the start of the pandemic to 579,016, including 81,493 active cases.

The rate of positive tests stayed at a high 9% from the 93,352 tests carried out on Wednesday. There were 1,160 serious cases, including 374 in critical condition and 324 on ventilators. The death toll continued to surge, reaching 4,210.

Also on Thursday, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein presented figures showing that over 200,000 vaccination shots were administered the day before, crossing that threshold for the second day in a row.

Hospital team members work in the coronavirus ward of Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem on January 19, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Edelstein provided ministry data showing that some 2,365,000 people have so far had the first of the two-shot Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, and some 692,000 of those have also had their second dose. The number represents close to a quarter of Israel’s 9.3 million citizens and maintains its position as the country with the highest per capita vaccination rate in the world, according to monitoring groups.

Coronavirus czar Nachman Ash told ministers Tuesday that the UK variant accounts for 30-40 percent of current infections and will become the dominant strain in Israel within weeks. Alroy-Preis, has said there is no indication so far that the strain is resistant to the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine that Israel is using in its rapid mass vaccination drive.

Government ministers on Tuesday voted to extend the national lockdown by an additional 10 days to the end of January, as Israel saw its highest-yet coronavirus infection rates since the start of the pandemic.

In addition, ministers also approved a fine of NIS 2,500 ($772) for anyone who arrives in the country without a recent negative virus test, according to the Prime Minister’s Office. Under the new policy, the test must be conducted within 72 hours before landing in Israel.

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