Health minister expands virus testing amid fears of broadening outbreak

Health minister expands virus testing amid fears of broadening outbreak

As cases jump by several dozen, Edelstein says asymptomatic people to be eligible for testing; top health official says spike not necessarily confined to schools

Magen David Adom medical workers test Israelis for the coronavirus at a drive-through site in Jerusalem on May 31, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Magen David Adom medical workers test Israelis for the coronavirus at a drive-through site in Jerusalem on May 31, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein announced plans to expand virus testing to those not showing symptoms and sternly warned Israelis against relaxing social distancing and hygiene habits, as dozens of new infections were confirmed in an outbreak linked to Jerusalem schools.

Israel’s medical services have thus far largely limited testing to those displaying symptoms of the virus and have resisted calls to conduct mass testing to detect suspected asymptomatic carriers.

Amid a significant rise in cases since Wednesday, Edelstein said he was changing the ministry’s policy and green-lighting tests for anyone in the vicinity of a person sick with the virus. This applies to all students and staff at schools where infections are found, as well as residents of assisted living facilities, nursing homes, and other welfare residential facilities, said Edelstein.

He also said all doctors would now be allowed to direct patients to receive coronavirus tests and said he was investigating claims that Israelis seeking testing on Sunday had been turned away or told that testing would take days.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein speaks during a press conference on May 31, 2020. (Screen capture/ Channel 12)

As he unveiled the looser criteria for testing, Edelstein stressed that even those who test negative must remain in 14-day quarantine if exposed to a virus patient or displaying symptoms of COVID-19.

The Health Ministry said that 59 new cases had been confirmed since Saturday night, and that of those tested, 1.8 percent had come up positive, compared to just 0.5% last week.

Edelstein described the increase in infections as “very troubling” development, and warned that without the public’s help, numbers would continue to rise. Earlier in the day, he said Israel could swiftly return to lockdown conditions.

Israel has taken steps in recent weeks to roll back its virus restrictions, reopening schools, synagogues, malls, restaurants and other spaces. While social distancing and hygiene guidelines remain in place, many have taken a more relaxed attitude as the virus appeared to wane, including toward a regulation requiring that masks be worn in most settings outside of home.

Most of the new cases over the past several days have been connected to an outbreak at Jerusalem schools, primarily at Rehavia’s Gymnasia High School, where over 100 teenage students and teaching staff have been infected. Channel 12 on Sunday night said the number of infections connected to the school had climbed to 160, but did not cite a source for the information.

Outgoing Health Ministry Director-General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov said a sharp rise in virus cases may represent a broader trend and not be connected specifically to schools.

“There is a phenomenon that is beyond the Gymnasia and may be beyond the schools. And this is what we are concerned about,” he told reporters. “This is not an isolated incident.”

The entrance to the Gymnasia Rehavia high school in Jerusalem, on May 31, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)

Israel on Friday reported a “significant” jump of 115 new coronavirus infections over 24 hours, the first time that the 100 mark has been breached since May 2.  Saturday saw another jump of 121 cases, in what health officials attributed to public complacency and failure to heed social distancing rules.

On Sunday evening, the Health Ministry said that 33 of the 1,994 active cases were in serious condition, of whom 30 were on ventilators. Another 44 were in moderate condition, while the rest were displaying mild symptoms. It said the death toll rose to 285, with another fatality.

The ministry in its daily roundup also said 2,874 tests had been conducted Sunday, compared to 1,012 on Saturday. The ministry has the capacity to test up to 15,000 daily, according to Edelstein.

While the Gymnasia school was seen as the epicenter of the latest outbreak, additional confirmed cases and suspected infections prompted the closures of some 17 schools and daycare centers around the country, according to Channel 12.

Edelstein warned earlier on Sunday of a possible new lockdown, saying the rate of positive results out of all daily coronavirus tests was now five times higher than several days ago. At a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Edelstein noted the spike, adding that “either it all turns out to be okay, or we will be back under lockdown, and much faster than people think.”

“I hear people asking, ‘What is the panic about? This is just an isolated incident and it has nothing to do with me,’” he said. “I also hear voices asking what does a 40-person increase matter in a country of nine million. But even if you disregard the number of sick in the Gymnasia school, we see there is an increase.”

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