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Israel records more than 2,200 daily cases as it barrels toward new restrictions

Virus czar says government ‘trying to prevent a full lockdown,’ after Monday sees highest number of new confirmed carriers in 2 months

A technician collects a swab sample from a woman at the coronavirus lab at Ben Gurion on December 14, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
A technician collects a swab sample from a woman at the coronavirus lab at Ben Gurion on December 14, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

The Health Ministry on Tuesday said 2,279 new coronavirus cases were confirmed the day before, with the rising infection rate nearing the threshold set by the government for renewed restrictions.

It was the first time over 2,000 infections were recorded in a day since October 14, when Israel was still in its second national lockdown.

Along with another 391 cases registered since midnight, the number of diagnosed infections since the pandemic began rose to 360,297. Of those, 18,651 were active, with 344 people in serious condition, including 130 on ventilators. There were another 134 Israelis in moderate condition and the rest had mild or no symptoms.

The death toll stood at 3,004.

The ministry said 70,977 tests were performed Monday, 3.2 percent of which came back positive. The test positivity rate has topped 3% the past couple days after remaining between 2.4% and 2.9%.

Last week, ministers agreed to start reimposing restrictions as part of a plan nicknamed “tightened restraint” if the number of daily cases hits 2,500.

Outdoor dining bubbles at the Jerusalem’s First Station on December 14, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“We’re trying to prevent a full lockdown with the help of steps that are a little less than lockdown. If this doesn’t succeed and we see another rise in morbidity, we’ll be forced to reach a full lockdown,” coronavirus czar Nachman Ash told Radio 103FM.

The deputy director-general of the Health Ministry, too, warned Israel was inching toward a third lockdown.

“It will take two to three months until we see the effect of the vaccines. We can’t become complacent,” Itamar Grotto said in an interview with Army Radio

Grotto said he hoped Monday’s surge in infections was a “one-time deviation.”

In its daily report, a military taskforce said daily cases were expected to reach 2,500 on a weekly average by the end of December. The Coronavirus National Information and Knowledge Center also reiterated its prediction that the planned vaccination drive won’t have a marked impact on the pandemic until the end of winter.

Meanwhile, the director-general of the Health Ministry said officials would decide Tuesday whether to approve Pfizer’s vaccine.

“I assume that we’ll begin vaccinating next week,” Chezy Levy told Army Radio.

An Israeli nurse seen during a simulated vaccination against the coronavirus, at Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

On Monday, the ministry told health maintenance organizations that vaccination will begin next week, with members of the general public to start receiving vaccinations on Wednesday, December 23. Medical personnel will begin to be vaccinated Sunday, according to Hebrew media reports.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu set December 27 as the scheduled start of the vaccination campaign, but officials signaled that date would be moved up following the US Food and Drug Administration’s approval of Pfizer’s vaccine over the weekend.

Israel currently has 313,000 doses of Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine and is expected to have 3.8 million by the end of December, enough to inoculate some 2 million Israelis, Channel 12 reported.

The government has set a target of 60,000 vaccines a day once the drive begins, meaning two million Israelis would be vaccinated by the end of January.

Women walk in the Jerusalem city center on December 13, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Separately, Hebrew media reported that ministers would convene Wednesday to discuss limiting controversial phone tracking by the Shin Bet security agency to detect coronavirus carriers and those who came in contact with them.

An Intelligence Ministry proposal set to be discussed by ministers would limit the tracking to those deemed to be uncooperative with contract tracers or who are suspected of lying.

Although the Shin Bet itself said it was reluctant to use the technology, which is usually reserved for combating terrorism, the government insisted it was the only way to stay on top of the virus spread. The program was used during the initial virus outbreak but then halted for a short period.

Many Israelis have criticized the Shin Bet program, both due to civil rights concerns and because a growing number of people have said that they were being forced to stay home by mistake, likely due in part to the technology failing to discern whether two people were actually within two meters of each other, close enough to transmit the virus. Additionally, people said calls to the Health Ministry routinely to appeal against unwarranted quarantine orders go unanswered as officials say the system has been overwhelmed.

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