Israeli task force warns British virus strain spreading, calls for full lockdown

Panel says infection increasing among kids; Health Ministry chief warns virus ‘running amok’; health official says no immediate plan to follow UK lead in delaying 2nd vaccine dose

Team member works in the coronavirus department of Ichilov hospital in Tel Aviv, on January 1, 2021 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Team member works in the coronavirus department of Ichilov hospital in Tel Aviv, on January 1, 2021 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

A military task force warned on Sunday that the British strain of the coronavirus, a variant that officials say could be up to 70 percent more infectious, was spreading in Israel.

The report said the increase in the number of cases involving the new strain could lead to a further increase in the already climbing infection rates. The task force said additional incidences of the mutated variant had been identified over the weekend, but did not say how many.

Additionally, the task force said that the mutation was spreading faster among children and that stricter restrictions would be necessary to control the spread of the virus, including a complete shutdown of the education system.

Some cities have already decided to close their schools.

Illustration of an empty classroom at Cramim school in Beit Hakerem, Jerusalem on October 21 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Meanwhile, the teachers union called for parents to keep children home if possible, saying the “education minister is abandoning the safety of 200,000 teaching staff and their families.” There have been growing demands in recent weeks for teachers and daycare staff to be prioritized for vaccinations as schools stayed open despite the steady rise in infections.

According to Channel 12 news, around 60,000 students and staff are currently in isolation after contact with a verified carrier of the coronavirus.

The outlet said that health officials would seek a full shutdown of the education system, but would be willing to compromise and leave daycares open and allow in-person learning for grades 1-4 and 11-12.

Health Ministry director-general Chezy Levy told the Ynet news site that the virus was “running amok” and that a tight and well-enforced lockdown was needed.

“The congestion in the hospitals has doubled. The morbidity is not limited to certain localities or sectors — there is an increase throughout the country,” Levy said.

People shop at the market in Ramle, on January 1, 2021 (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was set to hold consultations this week on tightening the national coronavirus lockdown, his office said Saturday. The talks will focus on imposing a “tight and short lockdown that will allow a quick reopening of the economy,” according to the statement from the Prime Minister’s Office.

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. However there have been widespread reports of lax enforcement of the regulations.

Meanwhile, as Britain battles the fast-spreading outbreak, the government plans to give people second doses of the coronavirus vaccines within 12 weeks of their first shot rather than within 21 days, to accelerate immunizations across as many people as quickly as possible. The practice has drawn some criticism from experts around the world.

Israeli officials have said that although there will be a slowdown in the vaccination program, there is no shortage of second doses for those who’ve gotten their first shots.

Sharon Elroy-Preis, acting head of the ministry’s public health services division, told Army Radio on Sunday that there were no immediate plans to delay the administration of the second shot.

“We will continue with what has been scientifically proven and approved. This is an outline that can happen in the UK when there is a catastrophe and risk management is required, but we are not there,” Elroy-Pais said.

Benno Abramovich, 98, receives a Coronavirus vaccine from medical staff at a COVID-19 vaccination center in Tel Aviv, Jan. 3, 2021. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said on Sunday that 1,090,000 Israelis had already received their first dose of the coronavirus vaccine, equivalent to some 11 percent of the population — far and away the world leader in vaccinations per capita.

The mass vaccination drive has so far focused mainly on healthcare workers, those aged over 60, and at-risk groups.

On Sunday morning, the Health Ministry said 3,977 new coronavirus cases were confirmed the previous day, in line with the usual drop seen on weekends, when testing rates are lower.

Along with 224 cases recorded since midnight, the number of infections in Israel since the pandemic began rose to 435,866.

The death toll stood at 3,392.

There were 50,299 active cases, including 729 people in serious condition, with 179 of them on ventilators. Another 211 patients were in moderate condition and the rest had mild or no symptoms.

Of the 74,901 tests performed Saturday, 5.3 percent came back positive.

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