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Under-60s could start getting vaccinated next week

Israel to face additional restrictions as Health Ministry says measures too lax

Minister says there’s currently ‘no lockdown’ in Israel, as ministry’s director warns of more than 1,000 serious patients, hospitals being overwhelmed if no limits on schools, work

A man closes his shop at the Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem on December 31, 2020, during a 3rd nationwide lockdown, in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
A man closes his shop at the Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem on December 31, 2020, during a 3rd nationwide lockdown, in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Just days after the start of Israel’s third national lockdown, the Health Ministry is planning to recommend that the government impose additional restrictions on schools, workplaces and traffic as coronavirus infection rates continue to rise, its director-general said Thursday.

Chezy Levy, speaking in an online press briefing, said he believed the current national lockdown was likely ineffective and that health officials planned to hold a reassessment on the current restrictions.

“We are monitoring the increase in all indices and we are planning further steps that we may need to take in order to reduce the morbidity, firstly by tightening [the lockdown],” Levy warned.

He said the ministry was considering “reducing the number of students, reducing the traffic and reducing the number of employees” allowed in offices.

“We are examining the infection rates and preparing these steps for submission [to the government] if we need to,” he said.

Chezy Levy, director-general of the Health Ministry, at a COVID-19 vaccination center in Herzliya on December 20, 2020. (Flash90)

Israel entered the new lockdown, its third since the start of the pandemic, on Sunday evening. Although set for a two-week period with an option to extend, health officials have already warned it will likely go on for a month.

The current lockdown rules bar Israelis from entering another person’s home; restrict movement to one kilometer (six-tenths of a mile) from home, with exceptions, such as for vaccinations; shut down commerce (except for essentials), leisure and entertainment; limit public transportation to 50% capacity; and limit workplaces that do not deal with customers face-to-face to 50% capacity. Most schools, however, remain open.

Health authorities believe there is too much movement and traffic several days into the new lockdown, and fear the high morbidity will outpace the efficacy of vaccinations.

“If we continue at this rate of morbidity and fail to reduce it, we will double the number of serious patients, and reach hospital insufficiency, so yes, we think we may have to impose more restrictions,” Levy said.

There are currently 43,615 active coronavirus cases in the country, of whom 679 are in serious condition, with 165 on ventilators, the Health Ministry said Thursday evening. Since the start of the virus outbreak in the country earlier this year, 423,262 Israelis have tested positive for the virus.

The Health Ministry figures showed that there were 5,809 new virus cases diagnosed on Wednesday, a slight drop from the two preceding days but still the third-highest daily count since early October.

Of the 95,125 virus test results returned during the day, 5.7% were positive.

Levy said that results from Thursday were already showing a 6.2% positivity rate.

Health care workers take test samples of Israelis in a drive-through complex to check if they have been infected with the coronavirus, in Jerusalem on December 31, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Speaking to the Kan public broadcaster, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said that the current restrictions don’t go far enough.

“I do not know of any lockdown in the State of Israel,” Edelstein said. “We went to the cabinet with a proposal for a lockdown and a mix of restrictions came out.”

Speaking at a virtual conference hosted by Ariel University, coronavirus czar Nachman Ash conceded that the current lockdown “is not as effective as the previous ones.” He said that he supported extending the restrictions beyond two weeks.

He said that with Israel’s aggressive vaccination campaign, however, “maybe this summer we will return to routine… We very much hope that we will be able to vaccinate most of the population by then.”

Levy, in his briefing to reporters, predicted the vaccination of the general public will begin in February. However, later, in an interview with Channel 12, he said people under 60 could start being inoculated as early as next week.

The mass vaccination drive started at the beginning of last week and has so far focused on healthcare workers, those aged over 60, and at-risk groups. Teachers are also being added to the roster.

A nurse prepares a vaccine at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, December 31, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Israel currently uses the Pfizer vaccine, which requires two shots, spread a few weeks apart. Though not yet available to the general public, vaccination centers have also been opening their doors to all comers at the end of each day in an effort to make sure vaccine units available for immediate use do not go to waste. So far, some 30% of over 60-year-olds have had their first shot, according to Health Ministry figures.

However, a shortage of injections means the ministry might be forced to semi-freeze the campaign for two weeks in January.

Thursday marked the second day in a row that daily vaccinations surpassed the 150,000 mark, which the government set as a goal for this week.

“Over 150,000 people in a day!” tweeted Health Minister Yuli Edelstein. “Within 11 days Operation Latet Katef [To Shoulder It] has vaccinated nearly 800,000 citizens. Thank you to medical teams for the difficult and important work, [done] always with a smile!”

The figure represents 9.18 percent of the entire population, maintaining Israel’s place as the leading country in the world for vaccinations per capita, according to statistics from the Our World in Data website. Second place is held by Bahrain with 3.37%, followed by the UK with 1.18%.

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