Israeli measures are curbing new virus cases, Health Ministry official says

Israeli measures are curbing new virus cases, Health Ministry official says

Itamar Grotto says working worst-case scenario has been 20,000 deaths, reveals new app with Shin Bet location data will allow Israelis to see if they were near a carrier

Illustrative: Workers prepare new wards for coronavirus patients at Sheba Hospital in Tel Hashomer on March 17, 2020. (Flash90)
Illustrative: Workers prepare new wards for coronavirus patients at Sheba Hospital in Tel Hashomer on March 17, 2020. (Flash90)

Israel is seeing success in its efforts to curb the rise in coronavirus cases after imposing a partial lockdown and increasing the number of tests, the deputy health ministry director said Sunday.

Prof. Itamar Grotto also said Israelis would soon be able to use an app to find out easily whether they had been near a COVID-19 patient.

The Health Ministry announced Sunday morning that 945 people in Israel have been diagnosed with the coronavius, including 20 people in serious condition — a fairly modest jump of 62 new cases since late Saturday morning, but a worrying bump of five new people in a life-threatening state.

The drop in new cases — a slight slowdown after Israel saw numbers spike from 529 to 877 in two days, from Thursday morning to Saturday morning — could be seen as an effect of fewer tests being carried out on Saturday.

“Right now it looks like 200 new cases a day on average, partially due to the fact that more tests are being conducted,” Grotto said in a phone briefing with journalists.

However, he cautioned that “it is clear to us that we don’t have the full picture regarding untested cases.”

Screen capture from video of Deputy Director-General of the Health Ministry Itamar Grotto. (Twitter)

Grotto also said during the briefing that Israelis would soon be able to better identify whether they had been near confirmed coronavirus carriers, using a new mobile app with location data collected from their phones by the Shin Bet security service.

The digital tracking, approved by the government without parliamentary oversight, has been highly controversial, and the High Court has ordered it frozen by Tuesday at noon, unless a Knesset subcommittee is formed by the current caretaker government to monitor it.

“There is an app in the final development stages,” Grotto said, adding that the Health Ministry was in contact with Apple and Google and estimating that it would be released later Sunday.

“It is based on the Shin Bet tracking, but will be more user-friendly,” he said. “People will be able to make their own independent inquiry without having to wait for someone to send them a message.”

Grotto said that the ministry’s worst-case scenario for the outbreak has been a projected death toll of between 10,000 and 20,000. He noted that Israel’s total annual deaths are on average 40,000.

Addressing a current shortage of swabs used in coronavirus tests, Grotto said it would be solved Monday, and that Israel had ordered 500,000 testing kits from the United States.

The Health Ministry said Thursday that it had ramped up its capacity to around 2,000 tests a day, but has not released any figures for the number of tests run since then. The Magen David Adom emergency service said Saturday that it had collected some 3,700 swab samples for testing over the weekend, but it was unclear how many were run for tests in labs.

Aryeh Even, Israel’s first fatality in the coronavirus pandemic (Courtesy)

Israel’s first fatality from the virus, 88-year-old Holocaust survivor Aryeh Even, was buried overnight in a funeral service that was capped at 20 mourners. All present were required to stand at a two-meter (6.5 ft) distance from one another, according to Channel 12.

Ministers late Saturday night updated emergency regulations, which came into effect on Sunday at 8 a.m., for the next seven days, aimed at keeping Israelis at home and to be enforced by police.

Updated: When are Israelis allowed to leave home? The specifics

According to the new rules, which the government has vowed to enforce, Israelis must remain at home, with exceptions made for buying essential food and medical supplies or seeking medical treatment. Other exceptions include attending demonstrations, aiding an elderly or ill person, blood donations, attending court hearings, seeking aid from welfare services, going to the Knesset, and attending religious services, including weddings and funerals (which must have no more than 10 people present) or visiting a ritual bath (mikveh).

Israelis visit the beach in Tel Aviv on March 21, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Israelis were permitted to exercise outdoors, with no more than two people together, and to venture out for short walks near their homes. The ban also limited the number of people who could drive in a car to two, unless they were members of the same household (this does not apply to “essential” errands, carpools of essential workers to and from work, and delivery services).

The head of the coronavirus treatment team at the Health Ministry said Sunday that if people abide by new directives and stay home, Israel will start to see the results in approximately 10 days.

“Self-isolation is very helpful and we will see the results in around 10 days. Hopefully the self-isolation will flatten the curve significantly,” Dr. Boaz Lev told the Kan public broadcaster, referring to the protocol that tries to prevent a surge in the number of people requiring hospitalization at the same time.

The disease generally only shows mild symptoms in the young and healthy, but can cause serious respiratory issues and death in older adults and those with underlying conditions.

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