Health chief expects 1.8m fully vaccinated by month's end

Ministers convene to approve full lockdown starting Friday

Netanyahu and Gantz said to agree on plan to shutter schools and most businesses; both appear to blame UK virus variant for recent steep rise in cases

A woman walks through Tel Aviv's Hatikva Market during a nationwide lockdown, on January 3, 2021 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
A woman walks through Tel Aviv's Hatikva Market during a nationwide lockdown, on January 3, 2021 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz have reached an agreement on tightening the current nationwide lockdown for 10 days, shuttering schools and nonessential businesses and closing supermarkets at 7 p.m., according to Hebrew media reports Tuesday, with the aim of reversing a steep spike in infections that have passed 8,000 a day.

Ahead of a Tuesday meeting of the coronavirus cabinet, called to debate the Health Ministry’s proposals, Gantz and Netanyahu agreed that the increased measures would begin on Friday, the reports indicated.

Gantz had said he would support tightening the lockdown, on the condition that the court system remains open and protests were allowed to continue — apparently fearing the lockdown could be seen as an attempt to delay Netanyahu’s corruption trial or clamp down on ongoing demonstrations against him.

Opening the coronavirus cabinet meeting, Netanyahu and Gantz both seemingly blamed the British variant of the virus for the booming surge in virus cases in Israel.

“The mutation is out of control, and here, too, we see a rise,” Netanyahu said, according to leaks from the meeting to Hebrew media. “The hospitals are warning that we are entering the most dangerous wave since the start of the pandemic and that if we don’t act immediately, we’ll lose many more people.”

According to the Walla news site, Gantz also appeared to pin the resurgence on the new strain. “There is no doubt that in light of the basic reproduction number of the mutation, we must take broad, general steps to reduce morbidity.”

According to reports, the Health Ministry plan would close all workplaces, except for essential workers. Gatherings would be limited to five indoors, 10 outdoors, and the limit on traveling beyond 1 kilometer from home would remain in place. Additionally, all schools would be shuttered, except for special education.

Israel began its third national virus lockdown last week, but the closure has been slammed as ineffective and full of holes, with schools and workplaces remaining largely open and a lack of enforcement. Health officials have for days been urging a full lockdown, while many Israelis have been seen to be largely ignoring the instruction to stay home, amid apparent weariness with the ever-changing regulations and a sense that the vaccination campaign underway means the pandemic is nearing its end. Health officials have warned such attitudes are dangerous as cases spiral.

Amid the already ballooning virus spread, the mutated, highly infectious strain of the virus first diagnosed in Britain has been detected in Israel, leading to fears it could fuel even more cases. Another strain, from South Africa, has not yet been detected in Israel but is believed to be even more transmissible.

Coronavirus czar Nachman Ash visits the Ziv hospital in Safed, December 24, 2020 (David Cohen/Flash90)

Speaking at the opening of the coronavirus cabinet meeting, the government’s coronavirus czar Nachman Ash said that “a rapid and unusual rate of infection has been identified in a number of localities,” raising the suspicion that the mutation is to blame, according to Walla.

He said that so far 189 cases of the mutation had been identified in Israel and that health officials believed it was “spreading and expected to increase the rate of infection.” He said those 189 cases had been tracked down to 30 people, meaning an average of more than five people infected by each person, according to Channel 13.

Army Radio reported that data submitted to the ministers showed over one-quarter (25.9%) of active virus cases were in children and teenagers in school.

Health Ministry Director-General Chezy Levy was said to predict at the meeting that Israel will reach herd immunity when the combined number of those vaccinated, those who’ve recovered from the virus, and those infected reaches 5 million. Israel’s population is 9.3 million, so over half of the overall population would have to be immunized to reach that level.

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.

At an inconclusive meeting of the coronavirus cabinet on Monday, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein warned ministers that Israel was heading toward the same fate as Italy, which last year was one of the worst-affected countries and has so far suffered some 75,000 deaths.

“If we don’t take the most stringent action, in March we will be in the same situation as Italy last March,” Edelstein said, according to leaks from the meeting reported by Hebrew media.

Israel Police officers patrol on Jaffa Street in Jerusalem on New Year’s Eve, during the country’s third lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, December 31, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Health Ministry said Tuesday morning that there were 55,312 active cases, with 8,308 infections confirmed the previous day, the highest daily increase since over 9,000 infections were recorded on September 30, when the country was under a second national lockdown.

Along with another 693 cases since midnight, the number of infections since the pandemic began rose to 450,116.

The death toll stood at 3,445, with 14 Israelis dying from COVID-19 on Monday.

Netanyahu, speaking at Monday’s meeting, reportedly asserted that alongside the fast-paced mass vaccination drive, stricter limits on public life for a short period will be enough to enable rolling back the restrictions and reviving the economy,

He said it will be “a final effort to eradicate the pandemic.”

The surge in new infections comes as the national vaccination campaign is in full swing, with Israel reaching a pace of 150,000 injections every day for the past several days. On Friday, Israel officially passed one million vaccinations or some 11% of its population — far and away the world leader in vaccinations per capita.

Tempering expectations, however, officials have indicated Israel will slow down or even completely stop vaccinating people next week with the first dose of the Pfizer inoculation due to a shortage of vaccines that will take several weeks to resolve. Meanwhile, second doses will be provided to all those who have received the first shot after the required 21 days have passed.

The Health Ministry’s Levy was said to estimate at Tuesday’s meeting that 1.8 million Israelis will have received both doses of the vaccine by the end of January.

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