Becoming the first Israeli to take a new 15-minute coronavirus test hoped to be rolled out across the country, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday said there was reason for “cautious optimism” that Israel was on the way out of its raging second virus wave.
“We have the first signs of cautious optimism that we are curbing the pandemic, but it is too early to say,” Netanyahu said during a visit to the Neve Horim nursing home in Jerusalem, where he took the “Sofia” coronavirus test, which the Prime Minister’s Office said came back negative. US firm Quidel’s Sofia machines test swab samples for virus proteins to provide their swift results.
Netanyahu’s comments came as data indicated that the curve of infection had begun to flatten, following several days of dropping “positivity rate” — the percentage of virus tests that return positive.
Preliminary Health Ministry figures showed Tuesday evening that the rate of coronavirus tests coming back positive was down to 10.2%, the lowest number seen since mid-September.
It’s unclear if the rate would stay as low, as it typically rises once final numbers for a day are available. Monday saw a positivity rate of 11.4%, still lower than previous highs of some 15%.
But despite the promising signs of the overall population’s infection rate beginning to drop, Channel 12 news reported Tuesday evening that the positive test rate in the ultra-Orthodox community remained at 23%. Meanwhile, the channel said there were some areas in the country with positive rates of only 8%.
Israel’s coronavirus czar, Prof. Ronni Gamzu, said in a Tuesday afternoon press conference that it was too early to tell if the new figures represented a significant trend.
“We see a certain drop in the rate of positive tests and the infection rate,” he said. “The lockdown has been very effective and I can already see a drop in contacts and infections. But it depends on how we continue from here, including enforcement, which is a very important element.”
He again urged the cabinet to increase fines on virus rule-breakers.
Netanyahu said that despite positive signs, he would not be rushing to lift the nationwide lockdown, which has been in place, with varied levels of restrictions, since September 18.
“All the experts without exception said wait at least another week, so that’s what we are doing,” he said. Last week, Netanyahu said the lockdown would last at least a month, and some of its restrictions could be in place for as long as a year.
Unnamed cabinet ministers, however, were quoted by Channel 12 news as saying Tuesday that the government might not be able to wait for the drop in cases it wanted before reopening the economy.
“We can’t keep the entire country in jail,” one minister was quoted as saying, stressing the need to carefully exit the lockdown “with a differential approach” to cities according to infection data.
The long-delayed “traffic light” proposal meant to impose localized restrictions based on how badly each locale is affected by the virus was given only a few days to work before it was scrapped in favor of the national shutdown.
According to Channel 12, even if the lockdown were to be eased according to the traffic light scheme, over half of the population could still remain under lockdown conditions. As of Tuesday, the channel reported, 92 areas were defined as “red” — home to some five million Israelis.
Netanyahu, speaking at the Jerusalem nursing home, said that while Israel was the first to lock down a second time, many European countries were now following in its footsteps, and the country needs to be able to emerge from the lockdown first as well.
Hinting at differences within his cabinet, particularly the ongoing battles with the Blue and White party, Netanyahu said that “unity” as well as “a public that obeys the rules” were needed to beat back the outbreak.
“We are now acting in the second wave in a very responsible way, as we acted in the first wave. In the first wave we were a united, cohesive government, and a responsive public. For us to succeed in the second wave, I need the same thing, a cohesive government and a public that obeys the rules,” he said.
The Health Ministry said it had found 3,566 new cases Tuesday by the evening, on just under 37,000 tests.
The number of patients in serious condition stood at 880.
At the same time, 27 new deaths were recorded Tuesday, bringing the toll to 1,797.
As of Tuesday evening, the number of active cases stood at 63,831, the lowest figure recorded since September 25, though that could be a product of lowered testing over the past several days.
The number of daily new cases reached an all-time high last week of 9,053 on Wednesday, went down to 7,031 on Friday, then 2,581 on Saturday — when the numbers are always lower due to reduced testing over the weekend — and then 2,905 on Sunday, according to Health Ministry figures.