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Israel sees 1,227 new virus cases in day, highest since mid-October

Total active infections also at highest point in more than a month; deputy health minister predicts number will rise further

People wearing a face mask walk in the Jerusalem city center on November 29, 2020, as Israel steps out of its coronavirus lockdown and rolls back restrictions. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
People wearing a face mask walk in the Jerusalem city center on November 29, 2020, as Israel steps out of its coronavirus lockdown and rolls back restrictions. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Israel confirmed the highest number of new daily coronavirus cases since mid-October on Monday, underscoring a renewed rise in infections after the government rolled back many of the restrictions that were in place during the second nationwide lockdown.

Health Ministry figures published Tuesday morning showed that 1,227 infections had been diagnosed the previous day, the highest daily number since October 19.

It came after the country’s active cases on Monday night went above 10,000 for the first time in a month. Tuesday’s figures put that tally at 10,513, the highest since October 31.

According to the data, 2.2 percent of the 56,181 tests conducted Monday came back positive, the same rate as last Friday. The positivity rate had gone up to 3.4% on Saturday and 2.6% on Sunday, though that figure has recently tended to climb on weekends and then go back down.

There were 264 patients in serious condition, of whom 101 were listed as being in critical condition and 99 were on ventilators. Another 72 were in moderate condition and the rest had mild or no symptoms.

The total number of confirmed cases since the pandemic began stood at 337,373. The death toll stood at 2,865.

Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch told Army Radio on Tuesday that based on the new numbers, a further rise in infections could be expected.

The government on Monday moved to further limit public access to shopping malls that have reopened in a widely criticized pilot program that saw customers flood stores over the weekend, raising concerns of an acceleration in the spread of COVID-19.

People shop at the Ayalon Mall in Ramat Gan after it reopened, November 27, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The ministerial coronavirus cabinet voted to reduce capacity at malls, a joint statement from the Health Ministry and Prime Minister’s Office said.

Instead of one person being allowed for every seven square meters, only one person per 15 square meters will now be permitted.

In a nod to store owners, who have lobbied for changes to allow more customers in as they look to get back on their feet, the cabinet said that there would be no blanket cap on how many people can be inside larger stores, as long as the ratio is maintained.

In stores smaller than 150 meters, the old ratio of one person for seven square meters will remain, with capacity capped at 10 customers and workers.

Malls have been closed — except for certain essential stores within them, such as pharmacies or food sellers — since mid-September, under the lockdown rules.

Street-front stores were allowed to reopen last month with a cap on the number of customers, which was raised from four to 10 last week.

Israel has been gradually lifting the rules put in place two months ago, including sending high school students back to class on Sunday and launching the shopping mall pilot. Tuesday has been slated to see four museums open as part of their own pilot program.

A hospital worker from Sheba Medical Center uses a swab to take a sample from a student for a coronavirus test at the Herzliya Hebrew Gymnasium High School in Tel Aviv on November 8, 2020. (Jack Guez/ AFP)

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said earlier Monday that Israel would halt moves to ease the nationwide lockdown and could even put more restrictions into place if coronavirus infection rates continue to go “in a very wrong direction.”

“I felt a huge sense of shock when I saw the congestion in the malls,” Edelstein told the Ynet news site of the program, which entailed the reopening of 15 malls around the country on Friday as part of a plan to evaluate their compliance with social-distancing guidelines. The openings drew large crowds of shoppers who waited in line to enter stores.

“We will not be tempted by new openings in any way,” Edelstein said, tempering the hopes of small businesses still waiting for authorization to open. “Infection rates are going in a very wrong direction.”

Edelstein said the rising rates “do not mean we will be in lockdown in a week,” but cautioned that “the coronavirus cabinet will approve very clear indices for when to enter a third lockdown.”

Despite warning against further commercial reopenings, the health minister added that he did not support rolling back the reopening of high schools, which he said “should open as planned.”

Illustrative: Children enter a Beit Hakerem school in Jerusalem, November 24, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Around 400,000 Israeli high schoolers returned to the classroom on Sunday morning, after a break of nearly two months. Under the Health Ministry’s plan, students will have at least two days a week of in-person studying, with distance learning on the remaining days.

Restrictions dividing students into separate study pods mean that teachers were permitted to come in contact with up to four groups of students, and the students themselves to move between only two groups. High school principals have warned that the regulations mean that the majority of studies for individual subjects will therefore have to continue remotely.

Younger students have already returned to class.

Edelstein’s comments echoed those of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who told his cabinet on Sunday that Israel is better placed than other developed countries experiencing a second wave now, but “I’m telling you straight, we are in danger if we do not act immediately.”

“If there is a need, we will stop the easing and even tighten those [steps] that have already been made,” the prime minister said, urging citizens to stick to social distancing and mask-wearing rules.

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