Health Minister Yuli Edelstein and his deputy, Yoav Kisch, both predicted Tuesday that an approaching national three-week lockdown that will severely limit movement and shutter the education system cannot be expected to bring a sharp drop in coronavirus infection rates.
While Edelstein warned that the lockdown restrictions may be extended to further control the virus before they are eventually lifted, Kisch said the national closure will likely only prevent an increase in the speed at which the virus is spreading.
On Friday at 2 p.m. Israel will go into a lockdown that limits non-essential movement to within 500 meters of the home and will keep the entire education system closed, among other measures to shut down public life. The lockdown will continue throughout the High Holiday and Sukkot festival period that begins with the start of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, on Friday evening and ends with Simhat Torah on October 9. Schools, which close down a day early, on Thursday, would anyway have been closed for much of that period.
Edelstein warned that the daily infection rates are not expected to suddenly plummet.
“With the current situation of the lockdown, anyone who thinks that in two or three weeks’ time the numbers will go down to 500 or 1,000 diagnoses a day doesn’t know what he is talking about. It is not just that we won’t ease up on [the restrictions], we may need to tighten them,” Edelstein told the Ynet website.
Speaking from quarantine as he was required to self-isolate after recent exposure to a virus carrier, Edelstein justified the closure of the education system day before the general lockdown takes hold.
“We thought that even one day will prevent a few thousand infections,” Edelstein explained. “There are tens of thousands of people in isolation and thousands of patients, and [thousands of] institutions that were closed.”
Kisch told the Kan public broadcaster that how things eventually pan out depends on how much the populace adheres to Health Ministry guidelines on social distancing and hygiene rather than finding loopholes to get around the restrictions.
The lockdown will continue for at least three weeks, and “perhaps more,” Kisch said. When pressed to give a figure for how low the daily infection cases must fall in order for the lockdown to be lifted, Kisch said 1,000 cases a day, the same figure quoted earlier this week by Health Ministry director-general Chezy Levy.
His assessment came as Health Ministry data showed that 5,500 virus cases were diagnosed on Tuesday.
“We can’t expect dramatic reductions in the infection numbers, but what will happen is it will stop the infection rate [increase] and perhaps bring it down a little,” as well as prevent a fresh outbreak during the holiday period, he said.
Kisch, who a day earlier predicted that bodies will pile up in the streets if the lockdown is ignored, admitted to the radio station that he is “beginning to be worried” after seeing firsthand that the public is failing to comply fully with existing Health Ministry orders. He voiced his concerns that there will be those who try to get around the lockdown by using some of the various exceptions to the restrictions that have been granted.
“Anyone who wants to leave home will find a reason to do so,” he said and lamented that the public had become complacent about the virus because hospitals are still accepting patients. Many hospitals in recent months have at times reached, or even surpassed, their planned occupancy.
The country has seen virus transmission spike in recent weeks, with thousands of cases traced back to schools since they opened on September 1, though many older students were spending most of their week at home distance-learning.
The swift reopening of schools in May, after the first lockdown, was among the major factors blamed for the swift reversal of Israel’s initial success in fighting off the pandemic during the first wave of the virus.
The Health Ministry said Wednesday morning that 166,794 people have been diagnosed with COVID-19 since the pandemic began, including 42,862 active cases — a number that has been sharply rising for the past few weeks.
Of them, 535 were in serious condition, including 138 on ventilators. Another 213 were in moderate condition and the rest had mild or no symptoms.