30 cases of South African variant found in Israel so far

Israel will shutter land borders with Egypt, Jordan; cabinet may extend lockdown

Prime minister says closure of Ben Gurion Airport will be prolonged as government combats ‘raging’ virus variants

Medical personnel in the coronavirus ward of Ziv Medical Center in the northern city of Safed, January 27, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)
Medical personnel in the coronavirus ward of Ziv Medical Center in the northern city of Safed, January 27, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri on Wednesday ordered the border crossings to Egypt and Jordan closed to both Israelis and foreigners to curb coronavirus infection rates.

The order will go into effect on Thursday morning at 6 a.m. and last through Sunday at least.

The Taba crossing with Egypt, and the Jordan River and Arava crossings with Jordan will be closed. The Allenby Crossing with Jordan, however, will remain open for West Bank residents to cross to and from Jordan.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, said the government will extend the closure of Ben Gurion Airport and decide on whether to lengthen the nationwide lockdown.

The lockdown, and the closure of the airport to commercial flights, are currently set to expire on Sunday. The extension will be decided on at a cabinet meeting on Thursday, Netanyahu said.

According to Channel 12 News, the Health Ministry wants a week-long extension but may settle for four days.

Decisions will be determined by virus infection rates, which have remained stubbornly high despite the three-week tightened lockdown, he said.

“We are protecting ourselves from the mutations. The British mutation is raging around the world and has also entered Israel. We managed to curb it. We must reduce it further and ensure that new mutations which we have yet to encounter don’t enter” the country, Netanyahu said.

He said that a lockdown and border closures were Israel’s two main tools to combat the pandemic.

“I will convene the cabinet tomorrow and I will convey the proposal from the Health Ministry to the government to extend the lockdown. We will decide according to the level of morbidity,” Netanyahu said.

He also said his government had “brought an economic plan” to deal with the pandemic’s fallout, apparently referring to his proposal to give cash handouts to most Israelis. The plan has been widely criticized and is not expected to be approved.

Netanyahu made the comments during a visit to a vaccination center in Sderot.

The check-in desk for Israel’s flagship carrier El-Al at Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv, January 25, 2021. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP)

In addition to the British variant, the Health Ministry said Thursday it had found a total of 30 cases of the South African mutation in Israel so far. Health officials located the mutation by testing a sample of Israelis inside the country, not people returning from abroad.

Some three weeks into Israel’s tightened nationwide lockdown, with more-infectious mutated coronavirus strains running rampant, the outbreak is continuing at full force.

The Health Ministry said Wednesday afternoon that 7,752 new cases were confirmed the previous day, with a positivity rate of 9.6 percent. It was one of the highest positivity rates seen in recent months, though it is noteworthy that the ministry recently limited testing only to those with referrals from a doctor.

Workers from Chevra Kadisha Kehilat Yerushalayim prepare a body before a funeral at a morgue for people who died from COVID-19, at the Sanhedriya Cemetery in Jeursalem, January 25, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The number of active cases has risen in recent days from below 70,000 earlier this week to 75,920 on Wednesday.

Another persistent figure that hasn’t dropped for many days is the number of serious cases, which has been hovering around the 1,200 mark and stood at 1,207 on Wednesday, putting immense strain on hospitals, many of which have converted various departments into COVID-19 wards and some of which have said they cannot handle more patients at this time.

The serious cases included 425 in critical condition and 324 on ventilators, according to the ministry.

The total case tally since the start of the pandemic was 619,150, and the death toll was at 4,539 — more than 25% of whom died this month alone.

The current lockdown restrictions, which came into effect on January 8, have shuttered all but essential businesses and the entire education system, except for special education institutions. Indoor gatherings are limited to five people.

Even Israel’s rapid vaccination campaign — the fastest in the world per capita — has yet to yield the expected results. The Health Ministry said Wednesday that 2,770,808 people of the country’s population of 9.3 million have received at least one dose of the vaccine, with 1,385,399 getting both shots. More than 200,000 got shots on Tuesday, of whom some 80,000 got their first dose and 120,000 got their second.

The government’s response to the third wave  of the outbreak has been hindered by coalition infighting over enforcement of restrictions in ultra-Orthodox areas. Some ultra-Orthodox groups have ignored the lockdown rules and responded to police enforcement with violent riots. Netanyahu’s Likud party has sided with its ultra-Orthodox political allies against strict enforcement of the rules, while its partner in the outgoing coalition, the Blue and White party, is pushing for stricter enforcement.

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