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New daily COVID cases rise above 4,000 Thursday; 6 known cases of mutant variant

Chezy Levy says hundreds of test samples undergoing genetic mapping, additional confirmed cases likely

A Maccabi Healthcare Services worker handles a test sample at a coronavirus testing site in Modiin, on December 24, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
A Maccabi Healthcare Services worker handles a test sample at a coronavirus testing site in Modiin, on December 24, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

As Israel prepares to enter a third national lockdown on Sunday, the rise in coronavirus contagion continued Friday, with the Health Ministry reporting that 4,046 new cases were diagnosed Thursday — the highest daily number since the last lockdown. Tests reached a record 102,596, with 4.0 percent coming back positive — around the rate of previous days this week.

The number of active cases stood at 33,338 as of Friday afternoon, out of a total of 394,391 since the pandemic began. Serious cases stood at 527 and the death toll was at 3,186.

Israel also currently has six known cases of a new, more transmissible coronavirus strain that originated in Britain, Health Ministry Director-General Chezy Levy said on Friday.

Health officials have expressed concern that the new variant could be spreading in the country after Israel banned visitors from the UK, Denmark and South Africa earlier this week, and required all Israelis returning from these countries to quarantine at state-run facilities.

Levy said that hundreds of test samples were currently undergoing genetic mapping of the mutated strain, and indicated that it is likely more cases with the new variant will be confirmed. He said the mutated strain is much more transmissible and drives up infection rates, but does not make the COVID-19 disease more deadly.

One of the six confirmed cases was a woman who has had recently returned from the UK and was self-isolating at home, having entered Israel before a government order came into effect requiring all Israelis to quarantine at state-run facilities, the Health Ministry said Thursday. It did not specify when she returned to Israel.

Three of the other cases were people who had recently returned from the UK and were staying in isolation hotels. A woman from Bnei Brak who had not been abroad was also diagnosed with the coronavirus variant, the Ynet news site reported Thursday.

Also on Thursday, Channel 13 news said the Health Ministry would convert its main laboratory into a center for genetic mapping of the mutated coronavirus strains, amid rising fear over the variant. The network said the ministry was purchasing a special machine from abroad for NIS 10 million ($3.1 million) for the new laboratory.

Chezy Levy, the director-general of the Health Ministry, at a COVID-19 vaccination center in Herzliya on December 20, 2020. (Flash90)

Channel 12 news reported that 700 tests for the mutated strain were performed in Israel as of Wednesday night.

Amid concerns over the new variant and the rise in daily infections, the Israeli government formally approved a third national lockdown, which will take effect on Sunday.

Levy said Friday he hoped this upcoming closure would be the last nationwide lockdown as the country “races to vaccinate as many people as possible.”

He said Israel hoped to inoculate at least 50,000 people a day in the coming days to “minimize the ability to contract the virus, and minimize the danger of the disease.”

He urged people to keep wearing masks and maintain social-distancing rules as the vaccine “becomes potent about two weeks after the second dose, so about a month to month and a half after the first shot.”

The upcoming lockdown aimed at curbing the resurgence of COVID-19 is set to be at least two weeks long and may extend to four.

During the closure, rules will bar Israelis from entering another person’s home; restrict movement to 1 kilometer from home, with exceptions, such as for vaccinations; shut down commerce, leisure and entertainment (except for essentials); limit public transportation to 50% capacity; and limit workplaces that do not deal with customers face-to-face to 50% capacity. (Full lockdown rules here.)

Fines for those breaking rules stand at NIS 500 ($155).

Kindergartens and school grades 1-4 and 11-12 will study as usual during the lockdown, while grades 5-10 will study remotely.

Israel’s two previous lockdowns, in April and September, succeeded in bringing down infection numbers, but morbidity ballooned again as the closures were rolled back.

The cabinet also approved on Friday ending the so-called “green islands” program, which allowed travelers free rein in the tourist areas of Eilat and the Dead Sea.

The rise in Israel’s coronavirus infection rate continued Friday, with the Health Ministry reporting nearly 4,000 new cases had been diagnosed the previous day.

The Health Ministry announced Friday that over 74,000 people had been vaccinated against the virus Thursday, taking the total number of people to receive the first dose of the vaccine to 210,000.

Shots were administered to medical staff from Sunday and Israelis in at-risk populations from Monday. Hospitals were set to join the effort next week, ramping up the campaign, with the prime minister and health officials saying Israel aspired to become the first country in the world to achieve herd immunity against COVID-19.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went so far as to say Thursday that he believed the Jewish state would emerge from the pandemic “within a few weeks.” No other world leader has made such an assertion, and many have warned the pandemic will potentially take months more to defeat.

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