Health minister cautions against quickly easing lockdown measures

Edelstein warns against gatherings on Simhat Torah, calling the holiday a ‘terrible danger’; says he’s heartened by drop in infections, aims for 100,00 tests a day by the winter

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein is administered a fast coronavirus test during a demonstration at Sheba Medical Center on October 7, 2020 (Oded Karni/GPO)
Health Minister Yuli Edelstein is administered a fast coronavirus test during a demonstration at Sheba Medical Center on October 7, 2020 (Oded Karni/GPO)

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein on Wednesday cautioned against swiftly lifting far-reaching restrictions put in place as part of the national coronavirus lockdown, saying it was too early to draw conclusions from signs that Israel’s efforts to contain the outbreak were starting to pay off.

In a briefing to reporters at Sheba Medical Center outside Tel Aviv, Edelstein also said the Health Ministry’s goal is to increase testing to 100,000 a day by the winter, helping to avoid strict limitations on commerce and public activities that have been put in place to curb the virus’s spread.

“We see the initial effect of the lockdown and the number of confirmed cases declining,” he said in a briefing to reporters. “At the same time, I wouldn’t recommend jumping to the conclusion that it’s over, that we won and we’ll reopen the economy. It’s entirely obvious that we need a lengthy period of time to ensure that the situation is as we want it.”

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.

“We won’t take steps [to ease the lockdown] just because a certain date has arrived. Today we have very slight, preliminary reasons for some sort of encouragement,” Edelstein said.

A woman walks her dog past a closed store on Ben Yehuda Street in downtown Jerusalem on October 7, 2020, during a nationwide coronavirus lockdown. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

He warned against mass gatherings on Simhat Torah, which begins Friday evening and is traditionally celebrated with hakafot, which feature dancing and mass gatherings.

“The hakafot are a joyous event, this year it’s a terrible danger,” he said.

While at Sheba, Edelstein was shown a number of new technological devices developed for dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, including a “super fast” testing system.

Edelstein said the ambitious goal of 100,000 tests a day will be met by pooling samples. Though daily test rates waver, the current daily high is 70,073, according to the Health Ministry.

“With the use of various methods, we will have technologies that will allow simultaneous tests of dozens of samples, which will improve the pace and bring us to 100,000 tests a day ahead” of the winter, Edelstein said.

He added: “Our ability to perform a large number of tests quickly is what stands between a closed economy and closed cities, and a situation of open commerce and institutions.”

An Israeli man is tested for coronavirus at a Maccabi Healthcare Services testing booth in the central city of Ramle on October 5, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

His comments came as the Kan public broadcaster reported that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said during a videoconference with mayors that he’s considering a special program to set up fast testing centers at the entrance to the resort city of Eilat, as well as around the Dead Sea resorts.

Such a program would seek to revitalize tourism in both areas, which has dried up since air travel was halted at the start of the pandemic and as hotels were shuttered under lockdown rules.

On Wednesday morning, Health Ministry figures that the share of coronavirus tests that came back positive on Tuesday had fallen to its lowest level in weeks. The Health Ministry said 4,682 new coronavirus cases had been confirmed Tuesday, out of 44,696 tests.

The 10.5 percent positive rate was the lowest rate since September 19, the day after the start of the nationwide lockdown. Israel had seen the percentage rise as high as 15.1% in late September before the trend began to reverse.

The positivity rate is seen as a key metric for measuring the spread of the virus, given uneven day-to-day testing numbers. During the first wave of the virus, the country rarely saw a positivity rate of more than 3%, though reporting at the time was intermittent.

The total number of confirmed cases since the start of the pandemic rose to 278,932, including 61,927 active cases — a figure that has also steadily declined in recent days.

Hospital workers in protective gear are seen in the coronavirus ward at Ziv Medical Center in the northern city of Safed on October 7, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Netanyahu said Tuesday there was reason for “cautious optimism” that Israel was on the way out of its raging second virus wave, but said that despite the positive signs, he would not be rushing to lift the nationwide lockdown.

Despite the positive signs, deaths have continued to rack up, and hospitals are still dealing with over 800 seriously ill patients.

Nine new deaths from the disease since Tuesday night brought the toll since the start of the pandemic to 1,806. Health Ministry figures showed that there had been 46 fatalities between 7 a.m. Tuesday and 7 a.m. Wednesday, among the highest single-day tolls recorded.

According to the ministry, 879 patients were in serious condition, including 240 on ventilators. Another 304 were in moderate condition and the rest had mild or no symptoms.

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