Infections fall further as Israel marks first major holiday after lockdown eased

Senior health official urges continued caution despite low morbidity, noting the risk of variants and that children remain unvaccinated

Illustrative photo of an Israeli family celebrating the Passover holiday in Moshav Yashresh on March 27, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of an Israeli family celebrating the Passover holiday in Moshav Yashresh on March 27, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Coronavirus infections continued to fall over the weekend as Israelis held holiday gatherings for the first time since cases abated, and lockdown measures were eased, following the country’s successful vaccination program.

A leading health official urged continued caution, however, warning that several million Israelis have not been inoculated, and that new virus variants could still emerge.

According to Health Ministry figures, 229 new COVID-19 cases were confirmed Saturday, and another 71 since midnight Sunday, bringing the number of cases in Israel since the start of the pandemic to 831,906.

The death toll stood at 6,183, with five new fatalities Saturday and two on Sunday.

The number of active cases fell further, to 9,608, with 468 people in serious condition, including 212 on ventilators.

The ministry said 16,841 tests were performed Saturday, with 1.4 percent coming back positive. Testing rates are typically lower on weekends and holidays.

The Health Ministry also said 5,220,509 Israelis have received at least one dose of coronavirus vaccine and 4,710,716 got both shots.

The steady drop in morbidity since the peak of the third wave outbreak in January comes Israel’s world-leading vaccinate drive, allowing for the lifting of strict restrictions on commerce, gatherings and schools in recent weeks.

Some restrictions were put in place for the Passover holiday, which began Saturday evening, but Israelis were still permitted to gather in groups of up to 20 indoors and 50 outside. Authorities have allowed restaurants, hotels, museums, theaters and sports venues to reopen, with some limits, to people who have been vaccinated or recovered from the virus.

Some 130,000 Israelis flocked to parks and nature reserves for the holiday on Sunday.

Israelis were largely confined to their homes during Passover last year as part of sweeping lockdown rules.

A couple walk on a salt island formed on the Dead Sea in the Israeli resort town of Ein Bokek on March 27, 2021. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP)

Despite the encouraging decline in morbidity, a senior health official called for continued caution cautious, noting children are not inoculated and that more data was needed on infections and the spread of the virus among the vaccinated.

Sharon Alroy-Preis, head of the Health Ministry’s public health department, told Channel 12 that 99% of the Israelis were in communities deemed “green” or “yellow,” meaning infection rates were.

She said the ministry was looking into whether to scrap the mandate to mask outside, after coronavirus czar Nachman Ash suggested it could soon be canceled.

Alroy-Preis warned, however, of the potential for more infections, noting the number of unvaccinated people and the risk of coronavirus variants entering the country.

She said that 3.5 million people were still unvaccinated, including 2.5 million children and a million others.

“We’re in a really good place and it’s important to protect this achievement,” she said.

Channel 12 reported that widescale genome sequencing by the Health Ministry has not detected any variants in Israel that are resistant to the vaccine.

The ministry is planning on further testing to check the finding, the report said.

Head of public health services in the Health Ministry, Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, during an undated government meeting. (Knesset Spokesperson)

Government ministers had been set to vote on approving billions in new coronavirus-related spending during the weekly cabinet meeting Monday, but the meeting was canceled due to disagreements between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s Blue and White over the appointment of a permanent justice minister.

Finance Minister Israel Katz of Likud said the NIS 7 billion ($1.8 billion) package included funds to buy vaccines for next year and to address other “urgent” health needs.

“The investment in vaccines saves lives and allows for setting the economy in motion,” he wrote on Facebook. “Israel must continue to be the world leader on the issue of vaccines and political disagreements must not prevent the continued treatment of urgent health and economic issues.”

The cabinet meeting was scheduled to be the first since last week’s election, which like the previous three over the past two years ended inconclusively, with neither side having a clear path to forming a government.

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