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1,000 fatalities in the past month

As Israeli death toll tops 4,000, ministers set to extend lockdown for 3rd week

Health experts reported to tell cabinet infections rates will stay high even after another week of lockdown; cabinet orders all arrivals from UAE into quarantine hotels

People walk in downtown Jerusalem on January 17, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
People walk in downtown Jerusalem on January 17, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A majority of ministers are expected to back extending the tightened national lockdown by another week beyond its Thursday expiration date, amid discouraging data morbidity data presented to the cabinet.

As of Sunday night, 1,945 people were hospitalized with COVID-19, of some 81,000 active cases, and 1,177 are in serious condition. The national death toll rose to 4,005, having passed 4,000 during the day and rising by some 1,000 over the past month alone.

Meanwhile, Israel’s vaccination drive continues apace, with more than 290,000 Israelis having gotten the second dose of the vaccine and over 2,100,000 the first shot.

Channel 13 reported that an extension of the lockdown is backed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein. Defense Minister Benny Gantz backs it so long as there is equal enforcement for the ultra-Orthodox community, where there are ongoing breaches of regulations and where some 20 percent of tests are coming back positive compared to around 5% in the general population.

According to Channel 12, ministers were told by health experts not to expect any significant drop in daily case numbers or in the number of seriously ill, even after an additional week of strict measures.

The cabinet meeting in which ministers will decide whether to extend the current tightened lockdown restrictions beyond January 21 has been set for Tuesday.

The report said Health Ministry officials had hoped to see a drop in daily infections and serious cases, but there is no such trend at this time. The more contagious virus variants — particularly the British strain — are being blamed for the difficulty in bringing down illness rates and easing the heavy load on hospitals, despite the lockdown and mass vaccinations.

People on Jaffa Street in downtown Jerusalem on January 17, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On Sunday evening the cabinet moved to place further limitations on arrivals from abroad, deciding that all arrivals from the United Arab Emirates and Brazil will be required to quarantine in government-run hotels. Arrivals from South Africa and Zambia are also currently forced to quarantine in hotels.

Other arrivals can opt to quarantine at home — but only if they are tested upon arrival and again nine days later.

Health officials have long complained that lax treatment of UAE arrivals was contributing to new infections, but politicians reportedly feared angering Emirati officials by applying new restrictions so soon after normalization between the countries.

The arrivals hall of Ben Gurion International Airport, on October 12, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/FLASH90)

Channel 12 reported that Israel’s single gateway to the world at Ben Gurion Airport is seen by health officials as a major contributor to illness rates. But while some would like to see the airport shuttered entirely, legal complications make this a remote possibility.

Nevertheless, officials were said to be examining ways of keeping a tighter lid on new cases, including the possibility of demanding all arrivals present a negative test in the country of origin prior to flying to Israel. Currently, all travelers are tested upon arrival, but this has allowed cases to slip through the cracks, with many testing positive for the virus only days after landing.

Another source of runaway infections was the ultra-Orthodox community.

On Sunday Defense Minister Gantz, amid more and more reports of large-scale institutional violations of the lockdown rules in the ultra-Orthodox community, said there was “no point” continuing the lockdown if enforcement is selective.

Channel 12 reported that residents of ultra-Orthodox areas were operating a special phone line with many informants providing updates every time a police vehicle arrived, including what streets they were on.

Police at a temporary roadblock in Jerusalem, on January 17, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The line was operating in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood and in several neighborhoods in Beit Shemesh, according to the report.

A Mea Shearim resident was quoted as saying police rarely come in any case, and leave quickly when they do.

“Everything is business as usual with us. Everything’s open,” he said.

Many reports have said major yeshivas are open. Hundreds of demonstrators clashed with cops who came to close one in Jerusalem and threw rocks and other objects at them. No arrests were made, though several fines were issued.

Government coronavirus czar Nachman Ash said Sunday that he would likely recommend extending the current lockdown restrictions. But he expressed hope that the trend was starting to reverse.

Police make sure kite surfers are keeping to the COVID-19 restrictions, on the beach in Tel Aviv, January 17, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“Over the past days we can see immense strain on the health care system,” Ash said. “There are about 1,200 serious patients, COVID-19 wards are 85% full, and hospitals are scaling back non-urgent procedures. The strain is expected to continue for several more days until we see a drop in infections.

“We are following the numbers of confirmed patients and are cautiously hoping that the slowdown trend from the weekend will continue. The direction is encouraging,” he said, but warned: “The odds that we will recommend extending the lockdown are high.”

Also Sunday, Ash said people who receive the second and final coronavirus vaccine dose will be exempt from any need for quarantine, starting a week after getting the shot.

In a press briefing, Ash added that restrictions will be eased for those who have been fully vaccinated as part of the so-called “green passport” program, details of which will be given in the coming days. The document is expected to provide access to cultural and other events currently unavailable to the public. Ash said eligible citizens will be able to get the certificate via an online system that is currently undergoing final testing.

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