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2 days after schools open, 2 weeks before High Holidays

In record, over 3,000 new COVID-19 cases diagnosed in a day

Coronavirus cabinet set to convene, with a health official warning there may be no choice but to introduce sweeping restrictions to curb the outbreak

Israelis wear protective face masks in Tel Aviv on September 2, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Israelis wear protective face masks in Tel Aviv on September 2, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Setting a new record for daily cases, the Health Ministry on Thursday said over 3,000 new COVID-19 diagnoses were confirmed the previous day, as ministers were set to meet to discuss additional restrictions in highly infected areas.

The spike, which came just two days after 2.4 million Israeli children went back to school, prompted a health official to warn that additional nationwide health restrictions could be rolled out to curb the spread.

According to the ministry data, 3,150 cases were recorded on Wednesday, bringing the number of total cases since the start of the pandemic to 122,799. Of the 23,938 active cases, 426 were in serious condition, 124 of them on ventilators. Another 150 were in moderate condition, with the rest displaying mild or no symptoms. The ministry said 34,324 tests were conducted on Wednesday, with 9.6 percent of the results returning positive.

The Health Ministry announced another seven deaths since Wednesday night, raising the toll to 976.

United Hatzalah workers wearing protective clothing as a preventive measure against the coronavirus test ultra-Orthodox Jewish men, at the Wolfson Yeshiva in Jerusalem on August 27, 2020. ( Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

An unnamed health official told Channel 12 that additional restrictions were possible as a result of the increase in cases.

“This is a complicated morning. In the coming hours, we will hold another assessment to examine if the new rise [in cases] is nationwide or in Haredi or Arab hotspots,” the official said. “If we reach the conclusion that the increase is coming from the general population, we will have no choice but to apply broad restrictions and there will be no point in implementing the ‘traffic light’ plan,” which applies different rules by area, based on the number of local virus cases.

Likud Minister Yuval Steinitz called for a nationwide lockdown in a Thursday morning interview with Army Radio.

“Logically, there is no avoiding a lockdown. If we had done it two months ago, we would have been a ‘green’ [low infection rate] country by now. The current numbers, which will amount to a million infections per year, will be impossible not only for the healthcare system [to handle], but also for the economy.”

On Wednesday, the official leading Israel’s response to the coronavirus pandemic warned that local lockdowns could be imposed in cities with high rates of COVID-19 infection. Ronni Gamzu signaled he would recommend declaring some areas “restricted zones” when the so-called coronavirus cabinet meets on Thursday.

Coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu speaks during a Health Ministry briefing on September 2, 2020. (Screen capture: Facebook)

“Red and orange cities will require additional restrictions,” Gamzu said in a briefing, referring to areas designated as having high infection rates under his “traffic light” plan.

Gamzu did not elaborate on what other restrictions he would recommend.

He also apologized to residents of “red” cities for the government’s last-minute decision to keep schools there closed, while warning of rising infection rates in ultra-Orthodox and Arab communities.

The Health Ministry on Tuesday released a list of 23 “red” cities. Most are Arab-majority locales, and a handful are ultra-Orthodox areas, with a number of exceptions.

Based on Gamzu’s criteria, the ultra-Orthodox cities of Bnei Brak and Elad, along with the Arab city of Nazareth, are also set to be declared “red” cities when the coronavirus cabinet convenes Thursday.

Israeli children attend class during the first day of school, during the coronavirus pandemic, in Tel Aviv on September 1, 2020. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

According to Hebrew media reports, ultra-Orthodox yeshivas — which resumed studies on August 23, ahead of the rest of the school system — have already seen over 500 new cases. If the trend is replicated throughout the country, Israel would be positioned to see a wider COVID-19 outbreak just ahead of the Rosh Hashanah holiday.

Channel 12 also reported Wednesday that high schoolers in the southern city of Beersheba recently held large back-to-school parties, with many students not wearing masks or adhering to social distancing rules. It also said some 5,000 people, many of whom did not wear masks, celebrated at a wedding in the northern city of Shefa Amr.

Hebrew media reports earlier Wednesday said Health Minister Yuli Edelstein will support immediate lockdowns and school closures in areas with high infection rates. The government has resisted demands to lock down so-called “red areas,” due to the economic toll.

The continued rise in new cases came after Israel pressed ahead with opening schools on Tuesday, despite the spike in daily infections, and amid fears that the start of the new school year could intensify the spread of the deadly disease.

Tuesday also saw some schools in red zones, where schools were instructed to stay closed at the last minute, ignore the closure order.

Israel’s swift reopening of schools in May — after nearly eradicating the disease with strict lockdowns over the preceding weeks — was seen as a serious factor in the marked resurgence of the pandemic at that time.

A nationwide lockdown during the High Holiday period beginning September 18 will again be discussed during Thursday’s meeting of the coronavirus cabinet, according to reports, but a decision is expected to be made only in a week or so.

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