Outbreak at J'lem school. Official: Don't visit grandparents

Israel reports sharp jump to 115 infections as Health Ministry warns lax public

Top official blames rise on atmosphere of ‘euphoria and complacency’ with Israelis ignoring social-distancing rules, says decision on closing some schools will be made Saturday

From left to right: Health Ministry deputy director-general Itamar Grotto, director-general Moshe Bar Siman-Tov and head of public health services Sigal Sadetsky at a press conference in Tel Aviv on May 29, 2020. (Health Ministry)
From left to right: Health Ministry deputy director-general Itamar Grotto, director-general Moshe Bar Siman-Tov and head of public health services Sigal Sadetsky at a press conference in Tel Aviv on May 29, 2020. (Health Ministry)

Israel on Friday reported a “significant” jump of 115 new coronavirus infections over the past 24 hours, the first time that the 100 mark has been breached since May 2. Top Health Ministry officials blamed the rising infections on the public’s “weakening” adherence to social-distancing guidelines.

At a press conference in Tel Aviv, the outgoing director-general of the ministry said the sharp rise was mainly at schools, most of which were allowed to reopen earlier this month. Top officials were to meet Saturday evening to decide on shutting down some schools.

The 115 new cases on Friday came after the ministry reported 79 new infections Thursday, following weeks in which new diagnoses had hovered at around 20 or less a day. That lull allowed Israel to relax most lockdown restrictions.

Channel 12 news said 78 of the cases in the past two days came from a single school, the Gymnasia Rehavia, in Jerusalem, including 64 students and 14 staff.

While the ministry was ready to order the closure of some schools, the outgoing Health Ministry director-general, Moshe Bar Siman-Tov, said officials would wait to see further data on new cases before making a decision on Saturday.

The TV report said there was a debate among Health Ministry officials who wanted to shut down middle and high schools across the country, while Education Minister Yoav Galant wanted to only close specific virus hotspots.

A final decision will be made Saturday during a meeting to be led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Bar Siman-Tov attributed the growing number of cases to an “atmosphere of euphoria and complacency” among Israelis who were “not observing the rules,” such as wearing masks, keeping distance from one another and maintaining hygiene.

“Unfortunately the disease is still here. Neither the heat nor the Israeli humidity caused it to disappear and therefore the measures are still in effect,” he said. “The atmosphere of weakening [adherence] among the Israeli public is out of place.”

Israeli students and teachers wear protective face masks as they retun to school, at Hashalom School in Mevaseret Zion, near Jerusalem, May 17, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Bar Siman-Tov warned the path was “short” to having hundreds of new cases a day and from there to thousands of new infections, but said a potential second wave of the virus “depends solely on our behavior.”

He called on Israelis to refrain from visiting their grandparents, saying it was better to speak with them by videoconferencing apps such as Zoom.

The fresh warnings came as Friday saw tens of thousands of people flock to nature and beaches amid pleasant weather, and as Israelis increasingly emerge from months of lockdown. Parks officials at the Sea of Galilee said beaches were full to the brim with visitors.

TV reports also showed large crowds of Israelis enjoying the Shavuot festival with parties at nightclubs late Thursday.

Sigal Sadetsky, head of public health services in the Health Ministry, said 31 schools across the country had been identified as “centers” of the new cases.

“It’s clear to us unfortunately that the conditions at schools… don’t allow for non-infection of coronavirus,” she said.

If some schools are closed, it would likely be middle and high schools, she added.

Also during the press conference, Bar Siman-Tov was asked if they were currently in favor of a reimposing a lockdown for two weeks, to which he responded no.

“It’s possible, but at the moment we’re not there,” he said, stressing the press conference was “to again call on the public to observe the rules.”

“This is completely in our control. If we are meticulous about the rules, we’ll succeed in blocking the spreading of infection. If not, then not,” he said.

Illustrative: Israeli soldiers seen at the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem, on May 10, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

He added that reimposing restrictions on public transportation was not currently being weighed, with the ministry’s focus on the potential closure of schools instead.

The number of active cases by Friday evening also rose to 1,927, out of a total 16,887 patients, ending a long trend of that rate declining. The number of people in serious condition rose by two to 39, and patients on ventilators rose by one to 37. Meanwhile, 35 were in moderate condition with the rest seeing only mild symptoms.

Despite the uptick in cases, the government said Thursday that higher education institutions and youth groups would be allowed to operate from Sunday, under Health Ministry restrictions.

The newly instituted coronavirus cabinet tasked with facilitating the government’s response to the virus is also concerned that fewer people are getting tested. Though at the height of the pandemic around 13,000-14,000 people were being tested every day, those numbers have dropped considerably in recent weeks to stand at around 5,000-6,000 a day, as less people experience symptoms.

With recent weeks seeing a sharp drop-off in the number of new virus cases, the country has lifted restrictions on movement, businesses and educational institutions.

Restaurants, pubs, hotels, pools and other establishments began opening up and hosting patrons Wednesday, after authorities gave the go-ahead to ease pandemic restrictions and allow some of the last businesses remaining shut to reopen.

Also Friday it was reported that some 30 children in a migrant preschool in south Tel Aviv as well as three staff members were ordered into quarantine Thursday after a child was diagnosed with the virus. Recent days have seen children in several schools and preschools in central Israel sent to quarantine after infections were diagnosed among pupils.

And at Hadera’s Hille Yaffe Medical Center, 41 health workers entered quarantine after two nurses caught the virus.

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