Israel is on track to start reopening much of its economy by February 23 as the number of vaccinated grows and illness rates go down, the government’s top coronavirus official said Friday.
Daily case numbers continued to decline Friday, with 4,922 new infections diagnosed the previous day — the lower weekday number since late December.
The positive test rate confirming infections on Thursday was 6.7%, the lowest since January 10. And the number of serious cases stood at 985, having spent most of the past month above 1,000.
According to Channel 12, the virus’s basic reproduction number, also called R0 (R-naught) — a figure representing the average number of people every carrier infects — was at 0.88, the lowest it has been in three months.
Speaking to Kan news, government coronavirus czar Prof. Nachman Ash said he believed Israel was on schedule to start reopening large sectors of the country in 11 days’ time, confirming the widely reported February 23 target date for the second stage of Israel’s emergence from lockdown.
This week saw restrictions on travel removed throughout the country, and some 20 percent of Israel’s students went back to school in areas with low to medium coronavirus infection levels.
“The next step we’re planning is on February 23,” Ash said. “Of course it depends on morbidity data and I believe we’ll manage to have good data by that date, so that’s the date we recommend opening commerce and [other] activities.”
He did not give details, but widespread reports have indicated the Health Ministry plans to recommend opening non-essential street stores for all citizens and more age groups return to schools, while malls, gyms, hotel rooms, museums, cultural events and more will reopen for carriers of a “green pass” — a permit for those inoculated or who have recovered from COVID-19.
The pass will possibly include those who have a negative coronavirus test result from within the previous 48-72 hours, though that issue, and the legal ramifications of limiting access to certain people to some activities, is still being examined.
But Ash confirmed that in non-essential activities, there will certainly be “preference to those who have been vaccinated.”
So far, 3,765,771 people have had at least the first shot of the two-dose Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine Israel is using, and 2,396,547 have had the second as well — nearly a quarter of the entire population.
Though Israel currently leads the world in vaccinations per capita, the pace of inoculation has slowed dramatically in recent days. A senior official in the country’s largest health provider Clalit this week blamed online “fake news” for promoting vaccine skepticism.
The next stage of opening, Ash confirmed, is planned for March 9, so long as vaccination and infection figures stay on target. That is believed to include a full return to schools, the opening of some cafes and restaurants and permission for larger events — for those with the “green pass.”
Ash asked for businesses suffering under lengthy closures to “hang on” a little longer.
“It’s not far off now, it’s just around the corner, it’s less than two weeks. We need this patience so that we can remain open for the long term,” he said.
Asked if this year’s Passover holiday, set to start on March 28, will be celebrated without limitations (last year’s “Leil Haseder,” the ritual Passover Eve meal marked by most Israelis in large familial gatherings, was jokingly referred to by many as “Leil Haseger” — Lockdown Eve), Ash was somewhat reserved.
“Not without limitations,” he said. “Limitations will probably stay with us. But I very much hope we’ll be able to celebrate it with our families in a more free manner, certainly when compared to last year.”
Meanwhile the Purim holiday, on February 25, is a cause for concern, Ash said. The holiday is usually marked by large costume parties and revelries in both the religious and secular communities. Last year’s Purim is believed to have been a major contributor to Israel’s first wave of infections.
Ash said he hoped there would be no need to impose restrictions on Purim, but that these could happen if illness numbers get worse. “We were badly burned last Purim,” he said.
Speaking to Army Radio Friday, Prof. Ran Balicer, a top advisor to the government on the coronavirus crisis, said officials are taking into account a certain rise in cases once the country reopens further.
But, he said, “our goal at the moment is not to bring down infections but to bring stability or something close to stability.”
He added that “the rate of seriously ill is, in the end, the determining factor. It is what matters in the end, it’s what we want to prevent.”
There appeared to be good news on that front, with one Israeli healthcare provider, Maccabi Healthcare Services, announcing Thursday that of some half a million given both doses of the Pfizer vaccine, only 544 people — or 0.104% — had subsequently been diagnosed with the coronavirus. There have been only four severe cases, and no people have died.
That means the effectiveness rate stands at 93 percent, Maccabi said, after comparing its immunized members to a “diverse” control group of unvaccinated members.
Full protection for people who have been vaccinated is believed to kick in a week after the second shot, so Maccabi’s data covers all those of its members who are seven or more days after receiving that second dose.
“This data unequivocally proves that the vaccine is very effective and we have no doubt that it has saved the lives of many Israelis,” said senior Maccabi official Dr. Miri Mizrahi Reuveni after the new data release.
She stressed that among those who have vaccinated and become infected, the vast majority have experienced the coronavirus lightly.