New restrictions on the public were regarded as days away on Wednesday, given rising infection numbers and despite plans to launch Israel’s coronavirus vaccination operations on Sunday.
Israel is contending with a marked rise in new COVID-19 cases, with infections surging to almost 3,000 on Tuesday, the highest caseload in over two months.
Interior Minister Aryeh Deri said that if cases continue to rise, the government would need to approve its “tightened restrictions” plan.
“We’re on the way there, unfortunately,” he told Channel 12 news.
These are expected to include the closure of shops, malls, and outdoor markets, as well as schools in high infection areas. Channel 12 news said health officials believe commerce could be shuttered within five days.
According to the network, if those moves do not successfully bring down the infection rate, Israel could reach a full lockdown in three weeks’ time.
The government-set benchmark for reimposing restrictions is an average of 2,500 daily cases over an entire week or a basic reproduction number of over 1.32. That figure was at 1.27 last week, according to the Health Ministry. Any value over one means the virus infection rate is increasing.
The warnings of renewed restrictions come as Israel prepares to launch a mass vaccination program next week, with the government setting a target of 60,000 vaccinations a day once the drive begins, meaning two million Israelis could be vaccinated by the end of January.
Along with some four million doses from Pfizer expected to arrive by the end of the month, Channel 12 said Wednesday that another four million were expected to come by the end of March for a total of eight million doses — enough to vaccinate four million people.
The network said Moderna’s vaccine, which could receive emergency approval from US regulators within days, as well as a vaccine being produced by AstraZeneca, are not expected to arrive in Israel earlier than April.
The Health Ministry on Wednesday released a detailed list of who would be inoculated first when the vaccine drive kicks off next week.
Topping the list were hospital workers, followed by employees of health maintenance organizations (HMOs), private health clinics, and dental offices; medical and nursing students taking part in clinical rounds; members of Magen David Adom and other ambulance services; and residents and caregivers at senior living homes.
Later on in the initial stage, the Health Ministry said, those in risk groups and anyone over 60 would be vaccinated at HMOs. Next will be those with medical conditions that put them at particular risk; Israelis working in jobs with high risk of exposure to the virus, such as teachers, social workers, first responders, and prison staff and prisoners; and Israel Defense Forces soldiers and other security personnel.
Last will come the rest of the population, with a timeline depending on how many doses arrive in Israel and the level of demand by the priority groups. Netanyahu said that if there is a surplus of doses, the general public will be permitted to get the vaccine sooner.
The Health Ministry said Wednesday that 2,888 new cases were diagnosed the previous day, the highest since October 12 and a significant leap compared to Monday, which had 2,279 cases confirmed.
The number of new cases was partly a reflection of the large number of tests conducted, 82,120, a daily record since the start of the pandemic.
However, the rate of tests to come back positive was also on the rise and reached 3.5 percent, the highest daily rate in almost two months for a weekday. Testing levels generally drop on weekends, with the positivity rate temporarily rising.
With another 1,476 infections confirmed on Wednesday, the total caseload since the pandemic began reached 364,320. Active cases soared to 20,255, including 393 patients in serious condition and 152 on ventilators.
The death toll grew to 3,031.
Earlier Wednesday, Defense Minister Benny Gantz asked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to “urgently” convene the high-level coronavirus cabinet, citing the rising morbidity and planned start of the national vaccination drive next week.
“If restrictions are required, business owners must receive advance notice,” he said in a statement.
Israel has already had two national lockdowns since the outbreak began in March. Some restrictions from the second lockdown, limiting public life, are still in place.
Channel 12 also reported Wednesday that the Health Ministry is seeking to reinstate mandatory quarantine for all Israelis returning to the country from abroad, including from countries with low infection rates.
Currently, only those entering Israel from “red” or high infection areas are required to self-isolate.
A decision on the matter is expected Thursday, Channel 12 reported, and if the Health Ministry’s position is accepted, the new quarantine orders are expected to take effect in a week, according to the network.
The report comes amid concerns that Israelis returning from abroad are helping fuel a resurgence in coronavirus infections, particularly those coming from the United Arab Emirates.
Health Ministry Yuli Edelstein lamented alleged widespread health violations by Israelis who have traveled to Dubai, accusing them of flouting local regulations. Edelstein said the Emiratis, who recently forged diplomatic ties with Israel, were turning a blind eye so as not to cause a rift with Jerusalem.
Last week, the Foreign Ministry reportedly intervened to prevent the designation of the UAE as a red state, fearing that doing so would cause a diplomatic rift with Abu Dhabi just as bilateral trade and tourism ties begin to take off
The Foreign Ministry denied the Walla news report, saying the final decision on the designation rests with the Health Ministry, which in turn said a regular check of the country found it to be “green,” meaning infection levels are not at a point where quarantine would be required. It said it would carry out another check in two weeks, including among those returning from there.
Unnamed sources at the Health Ministry reportedly said the concerns were less about the rates of infection in the UAE, and more about the large gatherings of Israelis taking place there.
Also Wednesday, a ministerial committee agreed to limit a controversial phone tracking program by the Shin Bet security agency to detect coronavirus carriers and those who came into contact with them, starting January 20.
Under the proposal approved by ministers, the tracking will be limited to those deemed uncooperative with contract tracers or who are suspected of lying. But they left the option for the program to return fully if there is a significant rise in infections.
Although the Shin Bet itself has said that it was reluctant to use the technology, which is usually reserved for combating terrorism, the government has insisted it is a crucial tool to stay on top of the virus spread. The program was used during the initial virus outbreak, but then halted for a certain period, before being reactivated due to Israel’s second wave.