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Data shows enforcement much laxer in Haredi areas

Israel passes 10,000 daily infections for first time since start of pandemic

Positive test rate highest in months, as officials make grim prediction of major outbreak in spring despite vaccination campaign

Ziv hospital team members transport a new patient at the coronavirus ward of the hospital  in the northern city of Safed on January 7, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)
Ziv hospital team members transport a new patient at the coronavirus ward of the hospital in the northern city of Safed on January 7, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)

For the first time since the pandemic began, more than 10,000 new coronavirus cases were confirmed Monday in Israel, despite the ongoing nationwide lockdown.

The Health Ministry said Tuesday morning that a record 10,021 infections were confirmed the previous day, bringing the country’s total caseload since the start of the pandemic to 562,167, including 81,059 active cases.

The rate of positive tests passed the 10 percent mark for the first time in over three months, with 10.2% of the nearly 100,000 tests coming back positive.

There were 1,114 serious cases, including 347 in critical condition and 277 on ventilators. The death toll grew to 4,049.

Oxford University statistics cited by the Ynet news site indicated that Israel has been leading the world in new cases per capita over the past seven days, ahead of Portugal, Andorra, the Czech Republic, Ireland and Lebanon. However, that figure is affected by the fact that Israel conducted the fourth highest number of COVID-19 tests per capita in the world over the same period.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein ignored the dire infection statistics in tweets Tuesday morning that highlighted Israel’s successful vaccination campaign, widely regarded as the world’s earliest and quickest. However, the vaccines have yet to slacken the pace of the outbreak.

Edelstein said Monday saw a new daily record, with a total of 186,000 shots administered, of which 114,000 were second doses and 72,000 were first doses. He said almost 2.2 million people of Israel’s total 9.29 million population have now received the first dose and some 422,000 have received both.

Netanyahu said: “We’re continuing at full force, reopening our economy and going back to [normal] life.”

Closed shops at the Givatayim Mall, January 18, 2021, during a nationwide lockdown. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

But normal life is not on the horizon yet. The so-called coronavirus cabinet will convene Tuesday afternoon to decide whether to extend the current lockdown beyond Thursday. It is widely expected to be extended by a week or 10 days.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who has previously said extending the lockdown is “pointless” if enforcement is selective, told ministers from his Blue and White party that he would support extending it for 10 days, but only under several conditions.

The conditions are that enforcement be stepped up in infection hotspots — focused mainly in ultra-Orthodox areas — immediately hiking fines for violations, increasing government payouts to small and medium businesses, setting a requirement to present a negative coronavirus test for all passengers before boarding a flight to Israel, and immediately vaccinating ages 16-18 to ensure the bagrut matriculation exams are held as planned.

A report Monday said ministers would be presented with a grim prediction of a potential renewed major outbreak in the coming months.

According to the prediction, reported by Channel 12 news, the rapid spread of the more infectious British mutated strain of the virus could cause a fourth wave of infections in March or April after the economy reopens. The scenario would see the new variant gaining dominance and being responsible for most, if not all, infections.

According to the prediction, even the relatively few members of risk groups that haven’t vaccinated could be enough to send hundreds of serious COVID-19 patients to already overcrowded hospital wards, which are currently under immense strain.

An unnamed health official told Channel 12 that Netanyahu’s frequent remarks that Israel is overcoming the pandemic are premature, over-optimistic and irresponsible. The premier has made the vaccination campaign the centerpiece of his campaign ahead of the March 23 Knesset elections.

Meanwhile, criticism has intensified over alleged discrimination in the enforcement of the current lockdown restrictions, with authorities handing significantly fewer fines in ultra-Orthodox areas, where the outbreak has been disproportionately intense and where there are increasing reports of widespread flouting of the measures. Meanwhile, the most fines are handed in Arab localities, where infections are significantly lower than in ultra-Orthodox areas, though still higher than among the rest of the population

The Kan public broadcaster reported that the Haredi city of Bnei Brak, where 20% of COVID-19 tests are currently positive, has seen just 2.6 fines per thousand residents, while Tel Aviv (4% positivity rate) has 5.6 fines per thousand residents, Beersheba (6%) has 5.15 and Rishon Lezion (6%) has 4.3.

Footage of yet another mass wedding in Bnei Brak drew outrage on Monday night, with police taking a long time — about an hour after it was widely reported — to arrive. Officers eventually ended the event, handed out fines and summoned the organizers for questioning on suspicion of spreading a disease.

Condemnation came from across the political spectrum, including from Aryeh Deri, who heads the ultra-Orthodox Shas party. He said the wedding contravened a Torah commandment to “be very careful with your lives,” caused “severe desecration of God’s name” and tainted the image of the entire Haredi community.

The Israeli town with the highest positive test rate (28.5%), Beitar Illit, has been seeing widespread calls to avoid “informing” on residents who flout the rules. The settlement’s top rabbinical court said contacting authorities was forbidden without its approval.

Roni Numa, the government official who oversees the pandemic response in the ultra-Orthodox community, said in a Monday press briefing that more enforcement was needed to close Haredi schools.

Numa said shuttering ultra-Orthodox schools for another 10 days would be exceedingly difficult, and said some 15% of ultra-Orthodox schools remained open. “If even only a small part is open, if we don’t stop it, [the outbreak] will continue to grow,” he warned.

He said that 30% of infections in Israel were coming from the ultra-Orthodox community, but that it appeared the high rate of infection was decreasing. The group constitutes around 10% of the general population.

Some 20% of virus tests are coming back positive in ultra-Orthodox areas compared to around 5% in the general population, Numa said.

Police enforce a lockdown at a temporary checkpoint at the entrance to the ultra-Orthodox town of Elad on January 18, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Netanyahu on Monday asked Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, a major leader of the Haredi community, to keep schools shuttered if the lockdown is extended, according to Hebrew-language media reports.

On Sunday, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, amid more and more reports of large-scale institutional violations of the lockdown rules in the ultra-Orthodox community, said there was “no point” continuing the lockdown if enforcement is selective.

On Sunday evening, meanwhile, the cabinet moved to place further limitations on arrivals from abroad, deciding that all arrivals from the United Arab Emirates and Brazil will be required to quarantine in government-run hotels. Arrivals from South Africa and Zambia are also currently forced to quarantine in hotels.

Other arrivals can opt to quarantine at home — but only if they are tested upon arrival and again nine days later.

Ministers are reported weighing additional restrictions on travel, including possibly banning all non-urgent international travel from Israel.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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