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Netanyahu: Israel’s infection rate leveling off, but among world’s highest

PM warns of jump in COVID-19 deaths, says cases could rise ‘to numbers we won’t be able to handle’ as ministers meet to discuss easing some restrictions, tightening others

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wears a face mask to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus as he opens the weekly cabinet meeting, at the foreign ministry, in Jerusalem, July 5, 2020. (Gali Tibbon/AP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wears a face mask to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus as he opens the weekly cabinet meeting, at the foreign ministry, in Jerusalem, July 5, 2020. (Gali Tibbon/AP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday the growth rate in new coronavirus cases appeared to have leveled off, but cautioned it could pick up again and that there could be a jump in deaths from COVID-19.

Speaking at the start of a meeting of the so-called coronavirus cabinet, Netanyahu noted Israel now has one of the highest morbidity rates per capita in the world. According to an Oxford University-based scientific publication, Israel currently has the eighth highest infection rate per capita.

“This is the bad news. The good news is that over the last two weeks or so we’ve been on a plateau,” he was quoted saying in a statement from his office.

The comments came after a weekend that saw dramatic slowdown in both testing and new infections, though the number of patients in serious condition and fatalities continued to climb.

As of Monday morning, there were 334 patients in serious condition, 100 of whom were on a ventilator.

Netanyahu said the increase in serious cases was not yet posing a challenge to the health system, though warned infections could yet rise “to numbers we won’t be able to handle.”

He also sounded the alarm about rising deaths from the virus.

“[The number of deaths] is going up in the State of Israel and it can rise to large numbers,” the premier said.

Medical personal at Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan are seen in the hospital’s coronavirus ward on June 30, 2020. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Netanyahu said that his government was committed to “disrupting the chain of infection,” referring to largely ineffective contact tracing programs managed so far. But he said it was difficult to carry out epidemiological studies in light of the elevated number of new cases. The Health Ministry recently appointed Ronni Gamzu to lead the  response to the pandemic, with one of his main tasks being to improve the country’s contact tracing program.

Gamzu has since moved the effort from the Health Ministry to the Defense Ministry.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz said the military was working to set up a command center for contact tracing that would soon be operative.

“[The center] can begin working as said over the weekend or at the start of next week, no later than that,” he said, according to a statement from his office.

Netanyahu’s comments underlined what appears to be a shift in policy since the appointment of Gamzu, who has promised to minimize restrictions on economic activity and movement while finding other ways to curb the pandemic. Netanyahu, who had earlier won plaudits for imposing strict restrictions, has since seen efforts to pass new rules upended by Knesset lawmakers backed by protesting business owners and others, who prefer less stringent shackles on business activity.

“In addition to building our capability to disrupt the infection chain, we must lower the number of [COVID-19] patients,” Netanyahu said.

A man wearing a face mask bikes past shops in Jerusalem’s Old City on August 3, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Among the expected items on the coronavirus cabinet’s agenda was whether to lift the mandatory closure of stores and malls during weekends. The government weighed rolling back the restrictions last week before pushing off the move due to opposition from ultra-Orthodox lawmakers, who wanted limitations on synagogues to also be eased.

While possibly easing some measures, a report Sunday by the Kan public broadcaster said the the government was set to impose new restrictions in cities with high infection rates, including closing stores and reducing gatherings.

Israel had largely succeeded in containing the spread of the virus during the initial outbreak, with the number of new daily cases dropping to the low dozens by May. However, following the rollback of most restrictions, there was a surge in infections, with recent weeks seeing around 2,000 new cases per day.

Recent days, though, have seen a drop in the number of infections, which appeared linked to a steep decline in testing levels over the weekend.

On Sunday, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said the number of cases was stabilizing.

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