With health officials saying Israel is facing an imminent new wave of coronavirus infections, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein warned Sunday evening that the country is in danger of entering a third lockdown if action is not taken within days to curb the outbreak.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would not hesitate to bring back restrictions. However, there were no immediate new restrictions, as after hours of discussion, the so-called coronavirus cabinet on Sunday evening failed to decide on a strategy to contain the pandemic in light of the recent rise in infections.
However, in a statement late Sunday, the ministers said they had decided to extend a pilot project to open some malls and markets by another 48 hours. The project had been due to expire on Sunday at midnight.
Prof. Nachman Ash, the top official charged with battling the virus, presented a grim projection, saying that, at the current rate, new daily cases will grow from 1,500 to about 7,400 in just three weeks. That would mean a wave of infections similar in its severity to the country’s second wave between August and October, which led to a month-long lockdown and put significant strain on Israel’s health system.
Ash also told the cabinet, based on a report prepared by the Corona National Information and Knowledge Center, that without immediate action the number of serious patients would similarly climb from the current 336 to 420 within a week.
According to various news outlets, the Health Ministry has recommended that Israel shut down all nonessential stores, just weeks after they were gradually reopened, and close all schools in medium- and high-infection areas.
Channel 12 news reported that the ministry was also attempting to reimpose quarantine restrictions for arrivals from all countries, including those deemed low-infection areas.
“We can’t have political considerations driving the response to the crisis,” Edelstein told his associates after the meeting, in comments quoted by channels 12 and 13. “If we don’t stop the increase [in infections] in the coming days, a third lockdown will be a fact and not a recommendation.”
Netanyahu said in a statement that Israel was at the start of a third wave of infection and that he would not hesitate to reimpose restrictions.
“The earlier we bring back [the restrictions], the shorter they will last,” he said. “There is light at the end of the pandemic. We need to work together to bring the vaccines and impose restrictions to curb morbidity, and we will overcome it.”
After several hours of arguments and disagreements between health authorities and the finance and education ministries, the cabinet failed to make any decision and extended the existing regulations by 48 hours. Netanyahu said a vote on new measures would be held on Monday.
As ministers discussed how to deal with the rise in infections, various Hebrew-language media outlets published near-constant — and sometimes contradictory — leaks of the content of the meeting, typically without citing sources.
Ash presented two alternatives, both of which would significantly reimpose restrictions that have been lifted.
The first would close all businesses that receive customers in person, including street stores, malls and markets, as well as schools in medium- and high-infection areas. Public transportation would be reduced by 50 percent.
The second plan would include all that and also close all schools nationwide, alongside travel restrictions.
“There’s a rise in infections, we need to push off mall openings,” National Security Adviser Meir Ben Shabbat was quoted by Kan as saying at the start of the closed-door meeting, referring to a much-criticized pilot program to reopen several shopping malls, which has caused overcrowding and increasing fears of a significant outbreak.
However, Channel 12 later reported an opposite recommendation by Ben-Shabbat’s deputy, Eytan Ben-David. He reportedly said the National Security Council was recommending opening more malls to avoid a small number of malls being flooded with shoppers.
“We don’t have figures about increasing morbidity in shopping centers,” Ben-David reportedly said. “Our conclusion from the pilot is that malls are the most monitored, managed and safe out of all shopping sites.”
No reason for the discrepancy was given.
The National Security Council was said to also recommend setting criteria for announcing a new lockdown: an average of 2,000 daily infections over a week, alongside a basic reproduction number of 1.3 or over.
The basic reproduction number is a key epidemiological figure for monitoring an epidemic, and represents the average number of people each virus carrier infects. When that figure is over 1, the number of active cases is rising and an outbreak is worsening. The current figure is 1.24, according to the Health Ministry.
Other reported recommendations were to conduct regular mass tests in the education system and to prevent contact and travel between Israel and Palestinian Authority-controlled West Bank areas and between high-infection zones and other areas.
“I’m having a deja vu feeling from August [before the second lockdown was imposed] and I don’t want us to be there,” said the director of public health in the Health Ministry, Sharon Alroy-Preis. “There is no reason to repeat that mistake.”
Alroy-Preis said that with the basic reproduction number rising, every day of delay without a decision means more than a day of lockdown later.
The Health Ministry earlier Sunday reported rising coronavirus cases in Tel Aviv and Eilat, downgrading those cities from “green” to “yellow” due to an increase in their per capita infection rates.
Under the government’s “traffic light” system, “green” cities have the lowest rates of infection. Those with the second-lowest infection rates are “yellow,” followed by “orange” and “red.”
The Health Ministry said there are currently 25 “red” cities and towns, all of which are Arab or Druze, that account for 24.6% of total infections in Israel. The 39 “orange” localities accounted for another 32.1% of total infections, while the 1,123 “green” areas made up 15.5% of all cases.
לאחר הפתיחה בניגוד להנחיות: פקחי החברה לביטחון של עיריית ראשון לציון הגיעו למתחם הקניות איקאה וקנסו את מפעילי המקום ב-5,000 שקלים. במקביל, הפקחים הזהירו את הציבור כי המצאות במתחם מהווה עבירה וכי הם יבצעו הליכי אכיפה כנגד השוהים בניגוד לחוק במתחם החנות. @N12News pic.twitter.com/wzLIxDyHKK
— אור רביד | Or Ravid (@OrRavid) December 6, 2020
On Sunday, hundreds of thousands of students in grades 7-10 returned to class for the first time in over two months.
Grades 7-10 were the last students remaining at home since the second nationwide lockdown was imposed in mid-September. Starting late October, the government has gradually been reopening the school system, permitting first younger students, and then high schoolers, to return to class several days a week.
The reopening of schools in May, and again on September 1, was blamed for a serious rise in coronavirus cases around the country.
There were 988 new virus cases diagnosed on Saturday, the Health Ministry said Sunday evening. The number of active cases stood at 13,149, of which 329 were in serious condition and 85 were on ventilators. The total number of diagnosed cases since the start of the pandemic stood at 344,798.
Six deaths since the morning took the total toll to 2,915.