Health minister, coronavirus czar, top ministry officials enter virus quarantine

Gamzu will continue to lead fight against coronavirus from isolation, urges ‘utmost caution’ after exposure; other members of response team will also self-isolate

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein speaks during a press conference in Jerusalem, on June 28, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Health Minister Yuli Edelstein speaks during a press conference in Jerusalem, on June 28, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein and several other senior officials, including coronavirus czar Prof Ronni Gamzu, entered quarantine on Tuesday after a staff member in the government’s COVID-19 task force caught the coronavirus, the Health Ministry said.

Following an epidemiological investigation, senior members of Edelstein’s office will also be required to quarantine, as will Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch, Health Ministry Director-General Chezy Levy and other top ministry officials, according to the statement.

In addition, members of Gamzu’s team will enter quarantine after coming in contact with the infected person, even though all of the staffers wore masks at the meetings in question, Gamzu’s office said in a statement.

“Prof. Gamzu will continue to manage the struggle against the coronavirus from isolation and emphasizes the need for utmost caution, and the need to enter quarantine, even after light exposure, in order to prevent the possibility of infection,” the statement said.

Ronni Gamzu at a meeting with Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion at the Jerusalem City Hall, August 12, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The source of the infection was apparently health official Ayman Saif, the head of the response team’s operations in the Arab community. He said he had likely caught the virus while visiting communities with high levels of infection as part of his job.

“My daily presence in cities and villages where morbidity is particularly high, something like a battlefield, increases the chances of infection,” he said in a statement published by the Health Ministry.

“Even though I am meticulous and take every precaution, I still got infected. The disease will not stop me from continuing the fight to eradicate it,” Saif said.

A curfew approved Tuesday evening by the cabinet went into effect at 7 p.m. in 40 towns and neighborhoods throughout the country, in the latest measure meant to help contain a rising coronavirus infection rate in dozens of communities.

The new rules, which will close schools and most businesses, will last for a week before being reconsidered by the cabinet.

The curfew, lasting from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. the next day, targets nightlife activities, whether bars or traditional slichot prayer gatherings held in the evenings in Haredi towns ahead of the Rosh Hashana holiday, which falls on September 18 this year.

The Health Ministry said Tuesday that 3,514 new coronavirus cases were confirmed over the previous day — the highest daily figure since the start of the pandemic, shattering a previous record set last week. Health officials say ultra-Orthodox and Arab locales have seen the most major outbreaks nationwide.

“The rate of morbidity in the ‘red’ cities in Israel is among the highest in the world,” Gamzu said in comments aired on television as the curfew went into effect.

“Even the rates in ‘green’ cities [those with the lowest infection rates] are high. We must act to protect our people,” he urged.

Police seen at the entrance to the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Ramot in Jerusalem as Israel began enforcing a nightly curfew, September 8, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

Gamzu said he “understands the difficulty” with the new restrictions. “We’re taking steps that are complicated and difficult for many Israelis. It’s hard for me personally. I know there’s anger and frustration directed at me. I have to be loyal to my professional truth — I’ve never imposed such steps before, but with this rate of infection I have to recommend these steps to the government. You have my sincere apology, don’t be angry with me personally.”

Gamzu has clashed repeatedly with ultra-Orthodox leaders over his virus response, and on Sunday, the government scrapped parts of his “traffic light” plan to control the virus after pressure from religious leaders.

On a tour of Beit Shemesh, another virus-hit city that saw several neighborhoods placed under curfew, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged Israelis to follow the rules on Tuesday.

“We have to do two things — wear masks and avoid gatherings. Irresponsible politicians who call on the public not to obey [restrictions] are leading to anarchy and to people dying,” he said, alluding to a Monday statement by Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman.

He said the current policy “is intended to slow the growth [of the infection rate], but it’s not certain that it will actually reduce it. We’re trying it out.”

Most of the municipalities affected are among the poorest in Israel, with Arab and Haredi towns making up much of the list. Some 1.3 million Israelis were covered by the curfew, according to a Channel 12 tally.

Several local leaders expressed anger at the government for placing their cities under curfew to fight the spread of the coronavirus, with at least one vowing that his municipality would not comply with the new rules.

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