Israel passed 4,500 COVID-19 deaths on Tuesday, with health officials quoted saying they’re stumped by the dire infection rates after more than two weeks of a nationwide lockdown.
The national death toll stood at 4,501, according to the Health Ministry. Monday saw 74 more people die of the disease. More than one-quarter of Israel’s total COVID-19 deaths since the start of the pandemic have been registered this month alone.
The ministry said 8,680 cases were diagnosed Monday, with the test positivity rate rising to 9.8 percent, one of the highest figures in more than three months.
Total cases have reached 613,286, including 74,323 active cases. Of them, 1,173 are in serious condition, including 414 in critical condition and 313 on ventilators. Tuesday saw more than 160 new serious cases, one of the highest daily rates since the pandemic began.
Both Channel 12 news and the Kan public broadcaster quoted unnamed Health Ministry officials saying all of their forecasts have been proven wrong, with several mutated strains that are more infectious becoming more and more prevalent. After hitting a peak of over 10,000 daily cases last week, the numbers continue to remain stubbornly high.
Officials do not see a possibility of reopening schools, the culture industry or businesses under the current conditions.
The lockdown rules are currently set to expire on Sunday, but the ministry is expected to push for an extension of the current lockdown restrictions until coronavirus infections start going down considerably, which is expected to be aided by a high rate of vaccination.
The Health Ministry said Tuesday evening that 2,728,154 of Israel’s population of 9.3 million have received at least one dose of the vaccine, with 1,315,179 of them having received both shots. Israel leads the world in vaccinations per capita.
Meanwhile, Channel 13 news reported that a top health official has condemned the government’s policy on flights to and from the United Arab Emirates in recent months following the normalization agreement between the countries.
Sharon Alroy-Preis, head of the Health Ministry’s public health department, was said to have told hospital chiefs: “In two weeks of peace [with the UAE] more people died than in 70 years of war.”
Israel and the UAE were never at war, and Channel 13 noted the comment may have been made half-jokingly. Since the beginning of December, 906 Israelis who returned from the UAE have been diagnosed with coronavirus, leading to a total of 4,050 cases, including many cases of the more infectious UK variant.
On Monday night, Israel shuttered Ben Gurion Airport to nearly all flights until the end of January due to fears over coronavirus variants entering the country.
The airport closure began at midnight and will remain in effect until Sunday, January 31, when national lockdown measures are currently set to expire unless the government renews them.
It was the first time since the start of the pandemic that Israel prevented its own citizens from entering the country. Even new immigrants, who have continued to arrive during the pandemic despite limits on non-citizen entry, will have to wait until the shutdown ends to travel to the country.
The director of the Health Ministry can grant exceptions for humanitarian or “special personal” reasons.
International travelers have been identified as a prime source of infections in the country.
The British variant of the virus is circulating widely in Israel, accounting for around half of recent cases, according to health officials. Twenty-seven cases of a South African strain have been found in the country, in addition to four cases of a mutation originating in the US state of California. Officials fear the variants might prove resistant to the vaccines or mutate further to become resistant. The Israeli government’s precautions come as studies indicate the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines offer protection from the variants.