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Health official: Children are 'engine' behind virus spread

Ministers warned against hasty virus reopening as cabinet debates schools, shops

Netanyahu says new restrictions if infection rates rise; health officials want students in small groups from 1st grade upwards; Katz asks for small businesses to open from Sunday

People walk in the almost empty market in Rehovot, on October 19, 2020 (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
People walk in the almost empty market in Rehovot, on October 19, 2020 (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

As ministers met to discuss the second stage of the exit from the lockdown, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein cautioned on Wednesday against reopening the economy and school system too quickly and repeating the mistakes after the first national closure earlier this year.

“Ministers must act responsibly and in statesmanlike way, and certainly not [responding to] populism,” Edelstein said in a statement, seemingly continuing the war of words between his ministry and the Finance Ministry in recent days.

“Everyone is expected to learn from the quick exit from the first lockdown so as, among other things, not to require a third lockdown. Instead of statements, it is the duty of the Finance Ministry to provide adequate compensation to all victims of the lockdown and not to suffice with pocket change,” Edelstein said.

The precipitous drop in infection rates after a monthlong lockdown has led to calls for a swifter-than-planned reopening of schools, businesses and public activity.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein speaks during a press conference at Airport City, outside Tel Aviv, on September 17, 2020. (Flash90)

A similar scenario following the first lockdown caused health officials to abandon their staged plan and open nearly all schools at once in early May — which has been blamed for playing a part in runaway infection rates over the summer which led to the second national closure.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told ministers at the meeting of the so-called coronavirus cabinet that virus restrictions will be reimposed if infection rates begin to rise again, but also said the lockdown rollback would not take as long as planned.

“There is an achievement here thanks to the cooperation of Israeli citizens. We must work step by step according to indicators; if the situation deteriorates we will have no choice but to impose additional restrictions,” Netanyahu told ministers as the meeting got underway. “There will not be nine stages, there will be fewer, but they will be gradual.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu taking a 15-minute coronavirus test, October 6, 2020. (Kobi Gideon / GPO)

According to the original staged plan presented by the Health Ministry, schools will gradually allow students to return if epidemiological benchmarks were hit.

Preschools and kindergartens opened on Sunday, and it was originally expected that the first two grades would return to school on November 1.

However ministers were set to discuss the possibility of switching the order of the planned stages of the exit from the lockdown, and reopening stores ahead of the lower grades in schools to give the Education Ministry more time to prepare.

Coronavirus czar Ronnu Gamzu, who is spearheading the national response to the pandemic, presented ministers with data showing a 400% increase in the number of infections in children aged 9-11 during the 2.5 weeks that schools were open in September.

Health Ministry Director-General Chezy Levy, left, and Sharon Elrai, acting head of the public health services division, at a press conference about the coronavirus on October 8, 2020. (Eyal Basson/Health Ministry)

Sharon Alroy-Preis, acting head of the ministry’s public health services division, additionally told the cabinet that children were driving the infection.

“Children are the engine for the transmission, even if they do not show symptoms,” Alroy-Preis said.

Alroy-Preis presented rates of positive results of a coronavirus test among those under 18 years old, which were higher than among adults.

According to leaks from the meeting, Netanyahu said the findings were “astonishing,” and expressed surprise that health officials had encouraged the reopening of kindergartens given the data.

A classroom at an elementary school is empty after Israel closed schools ahead of a nationwide lockdown to halt the spread of the coronavirus in Tel Aviv, September 17, 2020. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

Health officials reportedly presented a plan to the cabinet for the reopening of elementary schools which said that children needed to be separated into capsules — permanent small learning pods — from first grade upwards. Previous plans only required capsules from third grade upwards.

Additionally, children were to remain separated for afternoon programs as well as transportation to and from school, and all children and staff members were to wear masks — in contrast to the requirement before lockdown which applied only from the age of seven and not while in classrooms for younger children. Gamzu was also expected to require regular testing for teachers.

Finance Minister Israel Katz holds a press conference at the Finance Ministry in Jerusalem on July 1, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

However, Finance Minister Israel Katz asked the cabinet instead of opening schools to allow small businesses to open as soon as Sunday, including hairdressers and beauty salons.

The health, education and finance ministries have sparred over recent days over plans to open elementary schools, with the latter saying that splitting first and second grades into capsules would require a month to organize and would need extra funding from the Treasury. Katz said on Wednesday the new plans would require an extra NIS 6 billion (approximately $1.7 billion).

Additionally the government has been accused of not adequately compensating those forced to close their businesses or who lost their jobs as a result of restrictions imposed due to the pandemic.

According to the Kan public broadcaster, Gamzu will also ask ministers to pass legislation to significantly increase fines for gatherings held in contravention of coronavirus regulations and illegally operating educational institutions.

Coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu visits the coronavirus unit at Ziv Medical Center in Safed, northern Israel, September 27, 2020 (David Cohen/FLASH90)

There has been growing public anger at the defiance shown by some in the ultra-Orthodox population toward health regulations amid the pandemic. Sunday saw hundreds of Haredi schools open up in violation of the rules, after a leading rabbi instructed them to do so. The move was backed by a leading ultra-Orthodox legislator Sunday evening.

The ultra-Orthodox have seen a disproportionately high number of virus cases. In early October, officials said 40 percent of all new coronavirus infections were among the ultra-Orthodox, though they constitute only approximately 12% of the population.

The coronavirus outbreak is continuing to abate, according to figures published Wednesday morning by the Health Ministry, with new daily cases dropping to 1,165 after rising above 8,000 just a few weeks ago.

A military task force wrote in its daily report that Israel was continuing to gain control over the outbreak, but added that in absolute numbers, the morbidity rate was still very high.

Health officials have additionally warned that the downward trend could quickly reverse if the public becomes complacent.

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