Israel on Saturday was set to reopen four drive-through testing stations across the country as the Health Ministry announced a further sharp increase of 121 new coronavirus infections in the previous 24 hours.
With schools appearing to be at the epicenter of the outbreaks, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to address the nation on Saturday evening after meeting with officials and ministers on possible closures within the education system.
The first testing site to reopen was at Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium parking lot, which was to prioritize testing the remainder of staff and students at a high school in the city that is at the center of an outbreak.
The site operated by the Magen David Adom emergency services will remain open from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. on Saturday and will only be open to those who have received notification from a health fund.
The testing station at Tel Aviv’s HaYarkon Park will reopen later in the day, with the facilities in Beersheba and Haifa also to restart operations.
Health officials are concerned that fewer people are getting tested. Though at the height of the pandemic around 13,000-14,000 people were being tested every day, those numbers have dropped considerably in recent weeks as fewer people experience symptoms.
According to figures put out by the Health Ministry Saturday morning, a further 121 people have been diagnosed with the coronavirus since the day before, continuing an upward trend since Thursday.
There were 39 people in serious condition, of whom 35 were on ventilators. Meanwhile, 39 were in moderate condition with the rest seeing only mild symptoms.
The announcement came after 115 new cases were discovered on Friday and the ministry reported 79 new infections Thursday, following weeks in which new diagnoses had hovered at around 20 or less a day. Friday’s announcement marked the first time that the 100 mark has been breached since May 2. That lull allowed Israel to relax most lockdown restrictions.
Channel 12 news said Friday that 78 of the cases in the past two days came from a single school, the Gymnasia Rehavia, in Jerusalem, including 64 students and 14 staff.
The Kan public broadcaster reported Saturday that the Paula Ben Gurion elementary school in the city will remain closed for two days due to the large number of students who have siblings at the Gymnasia Rehavia.
At a Friday press conference in Tel Aviv, health officials said the sharp rise was mainly at schools, most of which were allowed to reopen earlier this month. Top officials were to meet Saturday evening to decide on shutting down some schools.
While the ministry was ready to order the closure of some schools, the outgoing Health Ministry director-general, Moshe Bar Siman-Tov, said officials would wait to see further data on new cases before making a decision on Saturday.
The TV report said there was a debate among Health Ministry officials who wanted to shut down middle and high schools across the country, while Education Minister Yoav Gallant wanted to only close specific virus hotspots.
A final decision will be made Saturday during a meeting to be led by Netanyahu.
Bar Siman-Tov attributed the growing number of cases to an “atmosphere of euphoria and complacency” among Israelis who were “not observing the rules,” such as wearing masks, keeping distance from one another and maintaining hygiene.
“Unfortunately the disease is still here. Neither the heat nor the Israeli humidity caused it to disappear and therefore the measures are still in effect,” he said. “The atmosphere of weakening [adherence] among the Israeli public is out of place.”
Bar Siman-Tov warned the path was “short” to having hundreds of new cases a day and from there to thousands of new infections, but said a potential second wave of the virus “depends solely on our behavior.”
He called on Israelis to refrain from visiting their grandparents, saying it was better to speak with them by videoconferencing apps such as Zoom.
The fresh warnings came as Friday saw tens of thousands of people flock to nature and beaches amid pleasant weather, and as Israelis increasingly emerge from months of lockdown. Parks officials at the Sea of Galilee said beaches were full to the brim with visitors.
TV reports also showed large crowds of Israelis enjoying the Shavuot festival with parties at nightclubs late Thursday.
Sigal Sadetsky, head of public health services in the Health Ministry, said 31 schools across the country had been identified as “centers” of the new cases.
“It’s clear to us unfortunately that the conditions at schools… don’t allow for non-infection of coronavirus,” she said.
If some schools are closed, it would likely be middle and high schools, she added.
Also during the press conference, Bar Siman-Tov was asked if they were currently in favor of a reimposing a lockdown for two weeks, to which he responded no.
“It’s possible, but at the moment we’re not there,” he said, stressing the press conference was “to again call on the public to observe the rules.”
“This is completely in our control. If we are meticulous about the rules, we’ll succeed in blocking the spreading of infection. If not, then not,” he said.
He added that reimposing restrictions on public transportation was not currently being weighed, with the ministry’s focus on the potential closure of schools instead.
Despite the uptick in cases, the government said Thursday that higher education institutions and youth groups would be allowed to operate from Sunday, under Health Ministry restrictions.
With recent weeks seeing a sharp drop-off in the number of new virus cases, the country has lifted restrictions on movement, businesses and educational institutions.
Restaurants, pubs, hotels, pools and other establishments began opening up and hosting patrons Wednesday, after authorities gave the go-ahead to ease pandemic restrictions and allow some of the last businesses remaining shut to reopen.
Also Friday it was reported that some 30 children in a preschool in the migrant community in south Tel Aviv as well as three staff members were ordered into quarantine Thursday after a child was diagnosed with the virus. Recent days have seen children in several schools and preschools in central Israel sent to quarantine after infections were diagnosed among pupils.
And at Hadera’s Hille Yaffe Medical Center, 41 health workers entered quarantine after two nurses caught the virus.