The Health Ministry announced on Tuesday morning a surge in new coronavirus cases, with 5,459 infections diagnosed a day earlier — the highest daily tally since the start of October.
The figure came as Israel settled into its third nationwide lockdown and the country’s vaccination program continued to ramp up.
The number of new confirmed infections on Monday was the highest since October 5, during the second national lockdown.
The Health Ministry said 97,989 coronavirus tests were carried out on Monday as the positivity rate spiked to 5.6 percent, having hovered below 5% last week.
The ministry reported 39,000 active infections as of Tuesday morning, with 609 serious cases including 159 people on ventilators.
There have been 409,338 infections since the start of the pandemic, and 3,257 deaths, including 18 fatalities on Sunday.
Alongside the alarming infection numbers, Israel’s vaccination program continued to accelerate on Monday, with the country closing in on 500,000 vaccinations.
A record 115,427 people were vaccinated on Monday, bringing the national total to around 495,000, meaning that Israel has more people inoculated against the coronavirus than formally diagnosed as having contracted it since the start of the pandemic.
Israel began its vaccination drive last week, focusing on healthcare workers, over 60s, and at-risk groups, and is leading the world in vaccinations per capita. In the nine days since the drive started, over 1 in 20 Israelis have been vaccinated.
Teachers are also to be prioritized for vaccination from the start of next week, with Tel Aviv announcing that it will start inoculating teachers from Thursday.
Officials have said they aim to reach 150,000 vaccinations a day in the course of this week, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has set a goal of having some 2.25 million Israelis — nearly a quarter of Israel’s 9.2 million population — vaccinated by the end of January.
Health providers are administering Israelis shots from Pfizer, which require two doses spaced several weeks apart, so the numbers so far represent people who still need a follow-up shot for full protection. The first shot appears to provide partial protection again COVID-19 after about 10 days, according to the US Food and Drug Administration.
Israel currently ranks first globally in vaccinations per capita, slightly ahead of Bahrain and quite significantly ahead of other countries, according to the University of Oxford-run Our World in Data.
The nation’s third lockdown began on Sunday evening. Although set for a two-week period, there is an option to extend and health officials have already warned it will likely go on for a month. However, they have expressed optimism that the latest lockdown will be the nation’s last as it steps up its vaccination program.
The current lockdown rules bar Israelis from entering another person’s home; restrict movement to one kilometer (six-tenths of a mile) from home, with exceptions, such as for vaccinations; shut down commerce (except for essentials), leisure and entertainment; limit public transportation to 50% capacity; and limit workplaces that do not deal with customers face-to-face to 50% capacity.
Coronavirus czar Nachman Ash told Army Radio on Tuesday morning that the decision to ease some restrictions, including allowing many schools to operate, would mean that the lockdown would take longer to achieve its goals.
“This lockdown is milder than its predecessors. If we do not adhere to it, it will have no meaning. Any easing [of its terms] will make it ineffective, we will have to extend it and the damage will increase,” Ash said.
Schools have largely remained open, but hundreds of thousands of Israeli children are set to return to remote learning this week after cabinet ministers approved an updated version of the so-called “traffic light” plan for containing the coronavirus on Monday night.
The plan ranks cities and towns, and enacts restrictions on them, according to local infection rates. Students in grades 5-12 in communities designated “orange” or “red,” with high infection rates, will learn remotely beginning Wednesday.