Jerusalem minister tests positive for virus; 14 more deaths since Friday evening

Police commander in the capital to quarantine following meeting with Rafi Peretz; 3 Likud MKs, 3 of their aides also to self-isolate after coming into contact with virus carrier

Education Minister Rafi Peretz attends a meeting of the Jewish Home party in Tel Aviv, January 13, 2020. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)
Minister Rafi Peretz attends a meeting of the Jewish Home party in Tel Aviv, January 13, 2020. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Jerusalem Affairs Minister Rafi Peretz announced Saturday evening that he has tested positive for the coronavirus.

“As Shabbat ended, unfortunately it became clear that I tested positive in a test conducted on Friday. I currently feel well and wish all of Israel’s sick a speedy recovery,” he wrote on Twitter.

Peretz has been in quarantine since Thursday, when his ministry’s director-general Avi Cohen tested positive.

Police said Doron Yadid, the Jerusalem district commander who has led the police response to ongoing demonstrations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the capital, will enter quarantine since he met over the past week with Peretz.

Yadid’s deputy, Eli Kazari, will replace him during the 14-day isolation period.

Peretz is the third lawmaker to test positive for coronavirus, following Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman and Joint List MK Sami Abou Shahadeh. Litzman tested positive in April when he was serving as health minister, allegedly after attending group prayers barred under the Health Ministry’s guidelines. He denied violating any rules.

Additionally, a spokesperson for the Knesset said three lawmakers from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party would have to enter quarantine after coming into contact with a virus carrier earlier this week at the Knesset parliament building. The three lawmakers were Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen, MK Avi Dichter and MK Osnat Mark.

Later in the night, Higher Education and Water Resources Minister Zeev Elkin also announced he would quarantine.

A statement from the Knesset said one of Cohen’s aides and two of Mark’s were also required to self-isolate.

All of them will likely have to remain in quarantine until August 10.

The announcements came as figures released by the Health Ministry showed 1,193 new coronavirus cases were recorded over Shabbat. The ministry later announced another 55 more cases, bringing the number of infections since the start of the pandemic to 72,218.

The death toll jumped to 526, as 14 COVID-19 fatalities were recorded since sundown on Friday evening.

Of the 26,590 active cases, 328 people were in serious condition, with 96 on ventilators. Another 155 people were in moderate condition and the rest had mild symptoms or were asymptomatic.

The ministry said 22,890 tests were performed Friday and 7,426 so far on Saturday. Testing levels typically drop off over the weekend.

Also Saturday, the country’s new coronavirus czar Prof. Ronni Gamzu gave a series of television interviews, reiterating his desire to streamline government restrictions to contain the pandemic and to secure the public’s trust in his efforts.

Gamzu, who has expressed skepticism about using sweeping lockdown measures to curb the spread of the virus, said a potential collapse of the health system due to a surge in COVID-19 patients requiring hospitalization wasn’t his main concern.

“This is a concern,” Gamzu told Channel 13 news. “This is one parameter. The second parameter is definitely the socioeconomic situation. I’m not in favor of only looking at the medical parameter. I must include everything, the Israeli government must include everything.”

He said “the socioeconomic trauma is much greater” than the health one.

Israel’s newly-appointed coronavirus czar, Prof. Ronni Gamzu, unveils his plan to fight the pandemic, at a press conference on July 28, 2020 (screenshot)

In a separate interview with Channel 12 news, Gamzu criticized a government decision that could allow thousands of yeshiva students from the United States into Israel for the High Holidays.

“We need to do a wise thing here and prevent another conflagration,” he said.

Gamzu expressed support for resuming air travel later this month and expressed confidence he would have a broad mandate to take measures he deems appropriate, after several other candidates turned down the post due to a lack of clearly-defined powers.

“All the government ministers understood that I’m the answer for this complication dilemma… and the truth is that I feel [I have] full backing and an irregular ability to influence, with the full support of the prime minister,” he said.

Speaking with the Kan public broadcaster, Gamzu stressed his opposition to the closure of businesses over the weekend and came out against imposing a lockdown over the Rosh Hashanah holiday next month.

Government ministers were expected to roll back the closure of stores and malls ahead of the weekend, but the move was pushed off following opposition from ultra-Orthodox lawmakers, who are pushing for restrictions on synagogues and group prayer to be eased.

Despite the closure continuing to be in place, a number of retailers opened their doors Saturday in violation of the restrictions.

Under current virus regulations, all non-essential stores must close between 5 p.m. Friday and 5 a.m. Sunday as part of a partial measure meant to curb the quickly spreading coronavirus while keeping the economy running for most of the week.

Much of Israel’s commercial activity is scaled back over the weekends due to the country’s laws on Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, but some malls and places of entertainment remain open.

Israelis shop at the Bilu Center in the central town of Kiryat Ekron on August 1, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

On Friday, Gamzu urged retailers to be patient, saying most of their demands were “correct and justified.”

While most stores have been reopened since May, retailers say that their margins are too tight to allow them to be closed on weekends.

Israel currently has one of the highest rates of infection per capita in the world, and has seen seen the number of new coronavirus cases rocket to some 2,000 a day in recent weeks. However, a new Hebrew University report published Thursday asserted that Israel has managed to gain control of the second wave of the coronavirus, thanks to a recent stabilization in the number of seriously and moderately ill patients.

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