January accounted for nearly third of Israel's total deaths

Health Ministry expected to seek week-long lockdown extension as virus rages on

Official tells TV serious cases appear to be going down; 2-month-old infant with health condition dies after contracting COVID-19

A healthcare worker takes samples at a coronavirus testing station in Jerusalem, on January 28, 2021 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
A healthcare worker takes samples at a coronavirus testing station in Jerusalem, on January 28, 2021 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

With the cabinet set to meet Sunday, the Health Ministry is expected to seek a week-long extension of the nationwide lockdown, according to multiple media reports Saturday.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is believed to support this, while Defense Minister Benny Gantz may seek a shorter extension, or ask for a detailed exit plan to give to the public, according to reports on channels 12 and 13.

The lockdown is currently set to end overnight Sunday-Monday, if the cabinet does not extend it.

According to Channel 12, health officials are considering a plan to begin reopening preschools and grades 1-3 next Sunday, February 7.

The discussion comes as the nation’s third lockdown fails to bring quick relief from high infection rates. Officials have in recent days said they have been disappointed by the closure’s achievements thus far, and have attributed this to the growing prevalence of more infectious virus variants.

A man shops at the market in Ramle, January 29, 2021 (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

January was by far Israel’s deadliest month yet since the start of the pandemic, with 1,367 fatalities of the total 4,738 as of Saturday night — nearly a third of all deaths.

Saturday night saw a two-month-old infant die at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital after contracting coronavirus. The newborn had been born with a health condition and had undergone a complex operation after his birth, the hospital said. He had been sedated for the past few weeks. His complicated condition, coupled with the damage to his lungs from the virus, eventually proved too much, it said.

It was not clear whether COVID-19 was considered to be the chief cause of his death or was merely a contributing factor.

Serious cases of COVID-19 have been exceedingly rare in children, and the illness generally has the potential to be more severe the older one is. Illness rates had also previously been low for kids, but have risen recently, apparently as a result of the British strain of the coronavirus.

People walk in the city of Ramle, January 29, 2021, during a third nationwide lockdown (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

According to Channel 13, only 45 percent of the over-60 population, considered to be most at risk from COVID-19, are yet fully vaccinated, with 3 percent having recovered from COVID-19. An additional 39 percent have received at least one of two vaccine doses — underscoring the importance health officials attribute to extending the lockdown by at least several more days, to allow more people to build up immunity following their shots.

An unnamed senior health official told Kan News they were seeing a significant drop in the number of serious COVID cases, and that this may be a result of Israel’s massive vaccination operation. However, he cautioned that it was important to see whether this trend continued in the coming days.

Meanwhile, Sharon Alroy-Preis, head of the Health Ministry’s public health department, told Kan there was preliminary evidence that the Pfizer vaccine, which is by far the most used in Israel, is less effective against the virus’s South African variant, dozens of cases of which have been found in Israel, though “there is no evidence that any variant is completely resistant to the vaccine.”

Pfizer itself has said tests so far indicate its inoculation is effective against all variants of the virus, though it may be slightly less potent in protecting against the South African variant.

A burial services employee carries the body of Romanian-born Holocaust Survivor Golda Schwartz, who died at the age of 93 of complications of COVID-19; at Nof Hagalil Cemetery on Jan. 28, 2021 (Gili Yaari / Flash90)

Ten staff members at Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Medical Center were diagnosed with the coronavirus Saturday, five days after receiving the second dose of a coronavirus vaccine. None have experienced symptoms. The vaccine is thought to reach full potency about a week after the second shot.

According to several reports Saturday, the Health Ministry is considering temporarily canceling the exemption those vaccinated have been given from quarantine after contact with a confirmed carrier — this, as it is not yet clear whether vaccination prevents one from carrying and transmitting the virus to others, even while protecting the person from becoming sick themselves. Given the still-high infection rates, officials may err on the side of caution and revoke exemptions for a time.

As of Saturday night, 2,977,696 have received the first vaccine dose, while 1,697,752 have gotten the second. Friday saw 6,435 new cases diagnosed, taking the number of active cases to 72,229. Of those, 1,173 people are in serious condition.

According to Channel 13, nearly one in every 100 people over the age of 60 in the ultra-Orthodox community — one of the populations hardest-hit by the pandemic — has died of the virus.

Health Ministry Director-General Chezy Levy said Saturday that “the lockdown is working, but at a slow and disappointing rate.”

A man receives a COVID-19 vaccine injection in Jerusalem, on January 28, 2021 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Thousands of Israelis are being diagnosed with the virus every day and the positive test rate has remained at around 9%, compared with lows of around just 1% reached in previous lockdowns.

Levy said it was important for people to remember that social distancing and isolation were the most powerful tools in combating the pandemic.

“The restrictions are difficult for everyone, but keep in mind that this is a disease that can only be prevented by stopping irresponsible personal contact,” he said.

Amid headlines about a lack of enforcement in ultra-Orthodox areas leading to gross violations of the health guidelines, the Blue and White party has said it will not approve extending the lockdown until a bill on raising fines is passed into law, arguing the measure is necessary to effectively curb the virus. The Knesset plenum will convene on Sunday to vote on the bill.

Should the Knesset fail to pass the legislation and a lockdown extension on Sunday, there will be a period during which there will be no restrictions at all until the cabinet can meet to order a new lockdown.

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