Over 6,800 coronavirus tests conducted

Israel coronavirus cases climb to 164; nearly 40,000 in quarantine

21 new infections confirmed on Saturday as government said set to announce new restrictions in bid to contain spread

Workers wearing protective suits prepare to disinfect a bus as a preventive measure amid fears over the spread of the coronavirus, in Tel Aviv on March 9, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Workers wearing protective suits prepare to disinfect a bus as a preventive measure amid fears over the spread of the coronavirus, in Tel Aviv on March 9, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Israel climbed to 164 on Saturday, up 21 from Friday, with nearly 40,000 currently in home quarantines according to the Israeli Health Ministry. Of those with the virus, two are still in serious condition, 10 are in moderate condition, and four have recovered.

Israel has seen no deaths from the virus.

Of the 164 confirmed cases, 124 people have been hospitalized with 27 receiving medical care at home. Some 38,000 are in self-quarantine, including nearly 1,000 doctors, more than 600 nurses, 170 paramedics, and 80 pharmacists, according to Health Ministry figures.

Health officials have conducted over 6,800 coronavirus tests nationwide so far, according to the ministry.

Israel has increasingly imposed stricter measures to halt the pandemic, starting with travel restrictions in February.

Officials are set to announce further widespread and stringent directives to try to contain the spread, including transitioning staff at workplaces deemed non-essential to work from home, and further limiting public gatherings and movement.

The raft of new measures, expected to be announced later Saturday, are likely to paralyze up to 50 percent of the Israeli economy, TV reports said Friday night.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened on Friday with top ministers and advisers working on the next steps and was expected to make the announcements on Saturday night, Hebrew media reported.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference about the coronavirus at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on March 12, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

However, Israel was expected to stop short of declaring a state of emergency or imposing a lockdown or curfews.

The nation’s schools and universities were also closed as of Friday morning until further notice, as Netanyahu called on the public to “refrain as much as possible from gatherings in general.”

Though preschools and kindergartens had been set to open, Haaretz reported that hundreds of teachers in those institutions had called in sick, in an apparent protest at the decision not to keep them shut as well. The Education Ministry asserted, however, that 85 percent of preschools had opened as usual.

A school bag lies in front of a school in the central coastal city of Netanya on March 13, 2020, after schools and universities in Israel were ordered to close as part of measures to contain the coronavirus. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Theaters in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and around the country also shut their doors for the foreseeable future amid a ban on gatherings of 100 people or more went into effect.

On Friday the Culture and Sports Ministry announced that all sporting events in the country would be stopped until further notice.

Among the additional steps being discussed and likely to be announced are ordering non-essential workers to work from home, limitations or bans on public transport, shutting preschools and creches, limiting access to some malls and shutting others. Some government workers will also be shifted to working from home, TV reports said. Officials were said to be working to determine how many Israeli workers would be classified as non-essential.

All essential workers and workplaces would continue as usual, with extra staff to be recruited.

The government was also considering releasing prisoners with light sentences to reduce prison crowding.

Illustrative: Workers inside a building at Tel Aviv’s Tel HaShomer Hospital which was converted into a coronavirus isolation unit, February 20, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Despite the devastating effects to the economy, officials have repeatedly promised that there will be no food shortages, and Netanyahu said Friday there was “no reason to storm the supermarkets.”

“There will be enough food in general and for the [upcoming Passover] holiday,” Netanyahu said.

Like many other places in the world, Israelis have been stocking up on supplies, fearing extended periods of quarantine, lockdown orders, or shortages.

Further financial steps were being planned to help people affected by the crisis, lost work and shut businesses, reports said, including easing criteria for unemployment benefits. Banks would also be encouraged to ease terms for loan repayments.

Empty shelves at a supermarket in Tel Aviv. Israelis are stockpiling food as the government takes stricter precautions against the Corona virus, March 10, 2020. (Yossi Zamir/FLASH90)

“We are investing considerable means right now to increase the pace of testing, to reduce the infection rate and – of course – to reinforce, strengthen and safeguard the medical teams, as well as many other things,” Netanyahu said after the Friday meeting.

Also Friday, Defense Minister Naftali Bennett ordered the creation of three facilities to house potential thousands of carriers of the coronavirus with mild symptoms, in order to free up space in hospitals for more seriously ill patients.

In accordance with new Health Ministry directives to cancel events and put a strict cap of 100 people on any gathering that does go ahead, synagogues throughout the country were expected to limit attendance over the course of Shabbat, with some splitting up worshipers to several locations to avoid crowding. Synagogues with cramped spaces were expected to further limit attendance to prevent close contact between congregants. People at higher risk were instructed to pray at home.

Israel’s chief rabbis cautioned religious Jews to avoid visiting the Western Wall for large prayer gatherings.

Women wearing protective masks visit the nearly deserted Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City on March 12, 2020, after Israel imposed some of the world’s tightest restrictions to contain the new coronavirus. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP)

The order, which went into effect Thursday, applies to weddings, bar mitzvahs and funerals, and covers “both closed and open spaces,” according to the Health Ministry.

These directives are just the latest blow wrought by a series of measures that have seen public life in Israel and around the world contract significantly in the hopes of cutting down meetings between people and chances for the virus to spread.

The travel industry is continuing to reel from a near-all encompassing ban on incoming tourists. Some 100 hotels throughout Israel were closing to visitors, according to Hebrew media reports Thursday. Another 100 hotels were expected to close on Sunday, according to the reports.

On Thursday, Netanyahu called the pandemic “a global event unlike anything” the country had seen. He warned that “the potential number of deaths is very high and we must take action to prevent that.”

He said Israel’s efforts were focused on slowing the spread of the virus so that it doesn’t cause masses of ill people to require medical attention at the same time and overwhelm the health care system.

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman said his ministry was aiming to greatly expand the number of Israelis tested every day for COVID-19, from the current 600 to 2,000 and more.

Wednesday’s new restrictions were announced as the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic.

Worldwide, there have been over 145,00 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and over 5,400 deaths since it first emerged in China in December, as of March 12.

To curb the spread of the virus in the country, all Israelis returning from overseas are required to quarantine at home for 14 days. Non-Israeli nationals were barred from entering the country as of Thursday at 8 p.m., unless they can demonstrate an ability to self-quarantine for two weeks.

The quarantine measures are among the most dramatic to be introduced by any nation in the intensifying battle against the coronavirus. On February 26, Israel had become the first country in the world to advise its citizens against all non-essential overseas travel.

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