Ministers hike fine for lack of face mask, warn of 2,000 patients on ventilators

Amid spike in infections, coronavirus cabinet votes to boost enforcement operations, looks at locking down outbreak areas

A doctor checks a medical ventilator control panel while wearing protective clothing at the Samson Assuta Ashdod University Hospital, March 16, 2020. (Jack Guez/AFP)
A doctor checks a medical ventilator control panel while wearing protective clothing at the Samson Assuta Ashdod University Hospital, March 16, 2020. (Jack Guez/AFP)

The “coronavirus cabinet” tasked with leading the government’s response to the virus outbreak voted on Monday to instruct the healthcare system to prepare for hospitals around the country to accept a potential additional 2,000 coronavirus patients who will need ventilators.

The directive also instructed hospitals to be prepared for an additional 2,000 patients requiring ventilators for respiratory illnesses other than COVID-19.

Meanwhile, ministers also decided to raise the fine for failure to wear masks in public, from NIS 200 ($58) to NIS 500 ($145). And they voted to form a national enforcement directorate to oversee, instruct and coordinate various enforcement bodies, and said they would seek to strengthen local authorities’ enforcement personnel throughout the country.

Cabinet members also voted for increased testing and protection for at-risk populations, particularly the elderly. And they said they would launch a review into the possibility of employees working in “capsules” — limited, constant groups of workers at any given time to reduce exposure to multiple individuals.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told ministers during the meeting that the government must take every measure in order to avoid the extreme scenario of 2,000 ventilated patients, but that, nevertheless, the Health Ministry must prepare for it.

“We are facing a systematic rise in infections,” Netanyahu said at the opening of the meeting.

He said the policy options under review included dramatically stepping up enforcement of social distancing rules as well as okaying local lockdowns in outbreak areas and new limitations on public gatherings.

He also mentioned the controversial option of reinstating Shin Bet digital tracking of COVID-19 patients. A leaked recording from Sunday’s coronavirus cabinet aired by Channel 12 showed Netanyahu pushing for the renewal of the contentious means of preventing infections.

“I know this topic is problematic,” Netanyahu said Monday, “but on the other hand we know it helped us a lot in containing the outbreak, and we will see how we can overcome the problems to slow down the infection rate.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Defense Minister Benny Gantz attend the weekly cabinet meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on June 21, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)

During Monday’s meeting, the Defense Ministry warned that Israel may face a scenario in which up to 2,500 COVID-19 patients require ventilation.

Under this potential scenario, which was presented to the cabinet, Israel could see  7,500 people requiring hospitalization, 125,000 sick with COVID-19, and hundreds killed by the virus, according to a statement from Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s office.

“The scenario is based on models that took into account extreme situations from the world. It must be emphasized this is not a forecast but rather an operational scenario that the Defense Ministry is recommending the state prepare for in terms of the tools at its disposal,” the statement said.

The raising of Israel’s level of preparedness comes as cases continue to rise. The Health Ministry announced earlier Monday that there had been 183 new coronavirus cases over the previous 24 hours, taking the total count to 20,869.  One new fatality took the death toll to 307.

The Health Ministry on Sunday to instruct hospitals around the country to prepare to reopen their coronavirus wards.

Diagnoses have risen steadily over recent weeks after being brought down to some 20 cases a day in May following two months of strict restrictions that shuttered business and schools and kept many from being able to travel more than a few hundred feet from home. Train services across the country renewed Monday after three months, but saw depressed ridership numbers.

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