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Ministers to meet on reopening schools, daycares as virus rates remain high

Health Ministry official says not enough people getting vaccinated; Tel Aviv, Jerusalem said planning to open schools in low-infection neighborhoods despite high citywide rates

Medical personnel wearing protective equipment treat COVID-19 patients in an intensive care ward for coronavirus patients at Ziv Medical Center in the northern Israeli city of Safed, Feb. 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
Medical personnel wearing protective equipment treat COVID-19 patients in an intensive care ward for coronavirus patients at Ziv Medical Center in the northern Israeli city of Safed, Feb. 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Ministers were set to meet Monday for further deliberations on reopening the country’s schools and daycares after a month of lockdown, as the deputy health minister warned that infection rates were still too high to take the step.

After other lockdown restrictions were eased Sunday morning, heated cabinet discussions in the evening ended without agreement on whether educational institutions would remain shut after Tuesday when restrictions were set to expire.

Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch told Army Radio on Monday that schools were not likely to be reopened the next day.

“Studies will not resume tomorrow,” he said, noting the need to space out each step in easing the lockdown rather than rushing the process, warning that otherwise “we will reach a point of no return” with infection rates.

High school students take a matriculation exam at Yehud Comprehensive High School on February 3, 2021 (Flash90)

Kisch stressed the need to prevent a rise in the virus reproduction number, R, which indicates the number of people each virus carrier infects. Below one, the virus spread is shrinking; above one it is growing.

Though the infection rate is still too high, it has stabilized, he said, and officials are wary of squandering that achievement.

Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch speaking by video to the Knesset Law, Constitution and Justice Committee, October 1, 2020. (Channel 13 screen capture)

Kisch said that if the R-value, which stood at 0.99, was allowed to rise, “it will be impossible to bring it down again.”

Figures released Monday by the Health Ministry showed a positive test rate confirming new virus cases was 8.8 percent on Sunday with 4,557 new cases diagnosed. The numbers of new cases are usually lower on and after weekends due to fewer tests being carried out.

Infection rates remain high with officials blaming new mutations of the virus, but the number of people in serious condition with COVID-19 dropped to 1,121, the lowest level in a week, according to the Health Ministry figures.

Since the start of the outbreak, there have been 693,212 people diagnosed with coronavirus in Israel and there are 67,631 active carriers. The death toll Monday stood at 5,129.

Israel was under a tightened lockdown for a month in parallel to a rapid mass vaccination drive, yet infection rates remain high. The average daily caseload each week over the past two weeks has remained over 6,500, and the number of new infections on Sunday was twice the daily number from just over two months ago, the ministry said.

Magen David Adom workers wearing protective clothing with a patient outside the coronavirus unit at the Ziv Medical Center in the northern city of Safed on February 4, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Deputy director-general of the Health Ministry Itamar Grotto told the Kan public broadcaster that although a large number of people have been vaccinated, there needed to be a better response to the vaccine drive and noted that there are still elderly people who have not been vaccinated.

Among those who are considered at low risk if infected, there were just 18,000 vaccinated in a day, he said, and “that is too little.”

Israel’s inoculation program, which began at the end of December, started with the elderly, health workers, and at-risk groups but last week it was opened up to all those 16 and over.

The health ministry figures showed that so far 3,480,598 people have had the first dose of the two-shot Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine Israel is using, including 2,081,998 who have had the second injection. Over a third of the population have had the first shot and over a fifth have completed inoculation.

Israelis receive a COVID-19 vaccine, at a sports hall turned into a Clalit Health vaccination center in Hod Hasharon, February 02, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

On Sunday 53,345 got their first shot and another 65,261 got the second. However, the day’s total of 118,606 is far lower than the over 200,000 injections a day seen delivered in the past.

Israel’s third nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19 was eased on Sunday at 7 a.m. after over a month, as the country continued to grapple with thousands of daily new cases.

Restrictions on travel inside the country and businesses that do not serve the public were removed, and businesses with individual interactions, like hairdressers and cosmeticians, were allowed to open, among other steps. But many businesses and shops remained shuttered, as did schools and preschools.

At the Sunday cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Ministry officials issued dire warnings of the potentially devastating consequences of reopening schools with coronavirus morbidity remaining high, and variants of the virus hitting children harder than previous strains.

A hairdresser wearing a face mask does hair extensions to a customer at a hair salon in Tel Aviv as Israel exits a third lockdown due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, on February 7, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Ministers had been reviewing a proposal to allow kindergartens and grades 1-4 and 11-12 to reopen only in “green” and “yellow” cities according to the “traffic light” system, which grades municipalities based on infection rates. For cities deemed “orange” and “red,” studies would only be allowed to take place in the open air, with classes split into two groups attending on alternate days.

Though the government plan is aimed at the city and town level, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem municipalities are readying to apply the format to individual neighborhoods based on their infection rates, Haaretz reported Monday.

The plan was reportedly approved by the Health Ministry last week and will enable areas with low infection to have preschools, grades 1-4, and grades 11-12 fully reopen. For neighborhoods where there is a high infection rate, there will be partial in-person classes, with small groups of students gathering outdoors.

However, there are currently hardly any neighborhoods that qualify as “yellow” or “green” — meaning low-infection — in the capital.

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