Ministers to vote on separate lockdown exit plans for low, high infection zones

Positive test rates among ultra-Orthodox down nearly half, but still double the national average; health officials warn it is still too early to resume education in Haredi areas

An empty road in Tel Aviv on October 8, 2020, during a nationwide coronavirus lockdown. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
An empty road in Tel Aviv on October 8, 2020, during a nationwide coronavirus lockdown. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Ministers will discuss separate exit plans from the national lockdown for cities with low and high infection rates when they convene Thursday to review the gradual lifting of some restrictions.

“Tomorrow I will convene the coronavirus cabinet and the first thing we will decide on is a separate route for the exit of the red cities,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a video statement posted to his Twitter account.

The cabinet is expected to approve reopening preschools as well as allowing restaurants to offer takeaway (in addition to the current delivery-only services). There are reportedly differences of opinion among ministers regarding allowing businesses that don’t see customers to reopen.

Israeli’s rate of positive coronavirus test results is the lowest since July, the Health Ministry said Wednesday morning, with the daily number of new infections nearing the 2,000 mark, below which authorities have determined that the current lockdown measures can start to be eased.

Just 1,370 cases were confirmed by evening Wednesday — though this number would likely rise further — bringing the country’s total tally since the start of the pandemic to 298,500, of which 44,688 are active cases. Less than three weeks ago, daily infections were above 8,000.

Coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu said officials were looking into the possibility of shortening the time required for mandatory quarantine of those exposed to the virus. Gamzu said the drop in infections and the readiness of the health system to test people quickly and to swiftly trace contacts made the move a possibility.

Israel currently requires 14 days of quarantine for anyone coming from abroad and anyone who was in contact with a confirmed carrier.

Coronavirus czar Prof. Ronni Gamzu seen during a visit at the Jerusalem Municipality on October 13, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Gamzu suggested that those in quarantine may be able to leave after just 10 days by taking a virus test. He said an announcement on the matter would be made in the coming days.

“We have enough tests to allow it. It’s being worked on in the Health Ministry,” he said during a tour of an IDF Home Front Command headquarters tasked with contact tracing.

“There is at the moment a good ability to sever [the chain of infection],” he said. “There is an operating headquarters, 2,000 investigations [a day] are being handled with high quality. That gives us the ability to contain, to control.”

Gamzu also backed maintaining the lockdown in so-called “red” cities, which aligns with his so-called color-coding traffic light plan, proposed previously but not put into effect, that would apply localized lockdown measures depending on infection rates.

“Cities with high morbidity should give residents more time because they have not reached a safe morbidity level. If given relief they may cause a situation where the morbidity level there will jump quickly,” he said.

Health ministry officials said Thursday that coronavirus infections among the ultra-Orthodox community had dropped to nearly half their rate during the height of the country’s second wave, but that they still remained about double that of the national averages.

Health Ministry Director-General Chezy Levi and Roni Numa, a former general who has led and assisted official efforts to deal with the coronavirus crisis in the ultra-Orthodox community, presented the figures during a media briefing held via video conference.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews praying in the town of Bnei Brak on October 14, 2020, (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Numa put the positive test rate among Haredim at 12.8 percent, about double recent nationwide numbers, but well below rates of over 20% seen in the community previously.

“We are seeing a delay in the downward trend among the Haredi public,” he said. “The positivity rate… is indeed on a delay from the general population, but it’s going down.”

He added that “we are still not far enough from Sukkot to understand what that holiday did to us, and so we need to understand if the holiday had a negative effect.”

The week-long Sukkot holiday, which ended on Saturday, saw many reported incidents of lockdown violations in the ultra-Orthodox community, as crowds gathered to hold traditional celebrations. Under the lockdown, public gatherings are limited to just 20 people outdoors, including for prayers.

Screen capture from video of Roni Numa. (YouTube)

Data provided by Numa and Levy showed that over the past day Haredi patients made up 35% of all those diagnosed with the disease, though they make up just 12% of the overall population.

Despite pressure from the Haredi community for permission to reopen education institutes, and in particular Talmud Torahs (ultra-Orthodox day schools for boys), Levy said that such a move would be a danger.

“The subject of studies is very sensitive in the Haredi community, but I must say that opening the schools without keeping to the lockdown exit plan is dangerous,” Levy said.

Numa likewise said of the Talmud Torah sites: “At the moment, we don’t see them opening in the coming days unless the infection rates go down to a level that enables us to allow that.”

Levy said that under the Health Ministry exit plan, education institutes were to be opened gradually, but noted that in some ultra-Orthodox cities studies were held illegally in recent days, despite high local infection rates.

According to the ministry plan, studies for all children up to age eight will be restarted when daily infection rates drop to 2,000 cases, he explained.

“We didn’t just do that on a whim, rather because we know that infection at those ages is relatively low,” Levy said, noting that from the age of ten the ability to infect is similar to that of adults, or may even be worse — as the children don’t always show symptoms, catching those around them off guard.

He said talks with the Haredi community were ongoing and there were still disagreements on the scheduling of opening education facilities.

Health Ministry Director-General Chezy Levy during a press conference in Jerusalem about the coronavirus on July 13, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Levy said that some “red” cities with high infection rates will need to remain under lockdown for the coming weeks even as the restrictions are eased for the rest of the country.

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