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Health minister warns more restrictions coming as virus cases soar

Yuli Edelstein says commerce will be first to be shut down, though most schools to remain open, if daily infections top 2,500 or transmission passes government-set benchmark

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein gives a press conference at a coronavirus vaccine center in Tel Aviv on December 13, 2020. The slogan behind him reads: "Here, we're beating coronavirus." At right is Maccabi health fund head Ran Saar. (Marc Israel Sellem/Flash90/Pool)
Health Minister Yuli Edelstein gives a press conference at a coronavirus vaccine center in Tel Aviv on December 13, 2020. The slogan behind him reads: "Here, we're beating coronavirus." At right is Maccabi health fund head Ran Saar. (Marc Israel Sellem/Flash90/Pool)

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein on Tuesday said the government will not hesitate to tighten health regulations, including shutting down commercial activity, as the daily virus caseload climbed to the highest level in two months.

Speaking to the Kan public broadcaster, Edelstein said the government had laid down clear conditions on what would trigger tighter restraints — either more than 2,500 new virus cases in a day, or a basic reproduction number of over 1.32.

Health Ministry figures on Tuesday morning showed there were over 2,200 cases diagnosed the day before. A military task force working on virus policy predicted that by the end of December the number will reach 2,500 daily cases. The R0 value, which due to its calculation is published as its value seven days earlier, was 1.27 last week, according to the ministry. Any value over one means the virus infection rate is increasing.

Edelstein said commercial activity would be the first to be shut down. He said that even if fresh restrictions are introduced, the government will do its utmost to keep as much of the education system open as possible.

Shoppers at the Ayalon Mall in Ramat Gan, November 29, 2020. (Flash90)

According to the government’s color-coding system, the education system would be shut down in “red” or “orange” cities — the two tiers with the highest infection rates — while remaining open in other areas, according to Edelstein.

Edelstein also lamented the complacency he saw among much of the population, with many feeling the pandemic is close to its end after the first batch of vaccines arrived. “The situation won’t be easy for the coming months,” he warned.

National coronavirus czar Nachman Ash said officials would try to prevent a full lockdown by implementing small steps. “If this doesn’t succeed and we see another rise in morbidity, we’ll be forced to reach a full lockdown,” coronavirus czar Nachman Ash told Radio 103FM.

Edelstein spoke as Israel prepared to launch a mass vaccination program next week, with the government setting a target of 60,000 vaccines a day once the drive begins, meaning two million Israelis would be vaccinated by the end of January.

As a confidence-boosting measure, amid concerns by significant numbers of people that the rushed developed vaccines may not be safe, Edelstein will be one of the first to get the shot, telling the station he expects that to be on Saturday night.

“I won’t ask the public to do anything that I am not prepared to do,” he said.

View of freezer that will be used to store coronavirus vaccines at the Teva Pharmaceuticals’ logistics center in Shoham, on November 26, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Earlier a military taskforce said daily cases were expected to reach 2,500 on a weekly average by the end of December. The Coronavirus National Information and Knowledge Center also reiterated its prediction that the planned vaccination drive won’t have a marked impact on the pandemic until the end of winter.

Tuesday was the first time over 2,000 infections were recorded in a day since October 14, when Israel was still in its second national lockdown.

Along with another 391 cases registered since midnight, the number of diagnosed infections since the pandemic began rose to 360,297. Of those, 18,651 were active, with 344 people in serious condition, including 130 on ventilators. There were another 134 Israelis in moderate condition and the rest had mild or no symptoms.

The death toll stood at 3,004.

The ministry said 70,977 tests were performed Monday, 3.2 percent of which came back positive. The test positivity rate has topped 3% the past couple days after remaining between 2.4% and 2.9%.

Israel has already had two national lockdowns since the outbreak began in the country earlier this year. Some restrictions from the second lockdown, limiting public life, are still in place.

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