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Israel sees virus test positivity drop to lowest rate in a month

Some 8% of test results Thursday showed COVID-19 infection, after weeks of hovering around 12%-13%

A medical staff member at Jerusalem's Shaare Zedek Medical Center wearing protective gear takes a swab to test for COVID-19 on October 8, 2020 (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
A medical staff member at Jerusalem's Shaare Zedek Medical Center wearing protective gear takes a swab to test for COVID-19 on October 8, 2020 (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Health Ministry coronavirus data released Friday showed Israel at its lowest test positivity rate in a month, with 8 percent of tests the previous day coming back with COVID-19 diagnoses.

Positivity rates had hovered at around 12%-13% for much of recent weeks, at one point reaching a high of 15%.

The numbers appeared to strengthen a trend in recent days of a slowdown in infections, three weeks after the inception of new national lockdown measures. The positivity rate is seen as a key metric for measuring the spread of the virus, given uneven day-to-day total testing numbers.

Thursday saw 3,692 new cases diagnosed, with 48,804 tests carried out. The country’s total case count stood at 286,393, of which 59,347 were active. Seriously ill patients stood at 852, of whom 241 were on ventilators. The death toll was at 1.864.

Officials have said the recent numbers are cause for cautious optimism but maintain that the lockdown will remain in place until at least mid-October out of fears the trend may reverse.

The current lockdown, Israel’s second since the pandemic started, began on September 18 before Rosh Hashanah and was tightened a week later. It is currently set to end on October 14.

A Shaare Zedek staffer wears protective gear as he takes a swab from a woman to test for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), outside the coronavirus unit at the hospital in Jerusalem on September 14, 2020. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

It has been marked by clashes between enforcing police and ultra-Orthodox protesters, as well as between police and anti-government protesters who are calling for Netanyahu’s resignation due to his ongoing corruption trial and the government’s handling of the virus outbreak.

On Thursday a senior Health Ministry official said that the lockdown has helped to curb the spread of COVID-19, but cautioned that large swaths of the country are still seeing high rates of infection.

“This means these restrictions are helping,” Sharon Elrai, acting head of the ministry’s public health services division, said during a press conference.

Elrai displayed a chart showing the percentage of Israelis living in “red” areas with the highest levels of infection. After peaking at 65 percent on September 28, she said there has been a “gradual decline” in the rate, which is now at 40%.

“This isn’t good enough. We need to drop more before we can loosen the restrictions,” Elrai said. “But there’s no doubt we see from this that [the lockdown] is working.”

She said the Health Ministry was working with other government ministries to draft a strategy for reopening the country, which she insisted would be “slow” and “gradual” and based on declining infection levels. Elrai also said morbidity rates were headed “in the right direction.”

Health Ministry Director-General Chezy Levy, left, and Sharon Elrai, acting head of the public health services division, at a press conference about the coronavirus on October 8, 2020. (Eyal Basson/Health Ministry)

Speaking before Elrai, Health Ministry Director-General Chezy Levy said the elevated infection rates have placed “great stress” on hospitals, but insisted they are able to cope with the influx.

“The health system is not collapsing. The health system is heroic — in the community and in hospitals,” Levy said.

He implored the public to adhere to health guidelines and avoid all gatherings, while rejecting the possibility that Israel will seek to achieve herd immunity in its fight against COVID-19.

“Herd immunity requires many illnesses and deaths. We will not go down that road,” he said.

During the press conference, Levy and Elrai were asked about the results of a nationwide serological survey conducted by the Health Ministry from July to September showing that 5.5 percent of Israelis have coronavirus antibodies, indicating that the country is far from achieving so-called “herd immunity” from the pandemic.

“We’re way above 5.5%,” Elrai said, acknowledging that the recent spike in infections meant the serological survey’s results were outdated. “In a rough estimate, we’re definitely not above 20%.”

“We’re very far from [herd immunity] and it’s not advisable to hang our hopes on this solution,” she added.

The study released Thursday indicated that the virus was far more widespread than known, but fell short of assessments that had predicted the pathogen had gone undetected in the vast majority of cases.

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