New COVID curbs take effect as serious cases climb over 300 and 16 die in 2 days

Gatherings of all sizes are subject to Green Pass system starting Sunday, but senior health official says lockdown not in cards at this stage and only will be as a last resort

Medical staff in the Coronavirus ward of the Herzog Medical Center in Jerusalem, on July 29, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Medical staff in the Coronavirus ward of the Herzog Medical Center in Jerusalem, on July 29, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

New restrictions to stem the spread of a renewed COVID-19 outbreak went into effect across Israel on Sunday, as serious cases surged to over 300 for the first time since April, according to the Health Ministry.

As of Saturday evening, 324 people were in serious condition from coronavirus infection, up from 257 on Thursday. Serious infections are a key metric used by decision-makers in the current wave.

The positive test rate on Friday was 3.79 percent with over 100,000 tests conducted.

The death toll also jumped, to 6,535, with 16 fatalities recorded over the weekend.

In Israel, there were currently 31,736 active coronavirus cases out of 897,326 verified infections since the pandemic began. Close to 50 people were on ventilators as of Saturday. So far this weekend, 6,315 new infections have been recorded, according to the Health Ministry.

The ministry also said that out of Israel’s population of some 9.3 million, over 5.8 million have received at least one vaccine dose, nearly 5.4 million have gotten two and over 420,000 have been administered a booster shot.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (L) at the opening of a vaccination center in Jerusalem, August 4, 2021 (Haim Zach / GPO)

Amid the continued rise in cases, ministers on Thursday approved significantly expanding restrictions on gatherings under the Green Pass system, despite misgivings over an 11th-hour decision to exempt places of worship.

Starting Sunday, gatherings of any size, indoors and out, are limited to those who have been vaccinated, recovered from the virus, or who present a negative COVID test, under the Green Pass system, which will also extend to hotels, restaurants and gyms.

The Magen David Adom ambulance service said Friday that it will begin operating 120 rapid-testing stations across the country for those requiring a negative test result under the Green Pass rules.

While the plan originally included synagogues and other houses of worship, the proposal presented to ministers for a vote Thursday night exempted prayer services with fewer than 50 participants, drawing furious criticism from some cabinet members.

The cabinet vote gave final authorization to a decision made Tuesday by the coronavirus cabinet to expand the Green Pass system to all gatherings, and not merely those with over 100 people, as is currently the case.

The system will be further expanded on August 20 to include children under 12, with the delay necessary in order to allow the Health Ministry to get a testing system in place.

The crowd at a concert in the southern city of Ashdod on August 4, 2021. (by Nati Shohat/Flash90)

The ministry said Thursday that it was beginning a pilot project from next week to provide serological tests to children to discover those who may have had the virus without knowing it and have significant antibody levels.

These children would be included in the Green Pass system and would be exempt from having to go into isolation if exposed to a known virus carrier.

The coronavirus cabinet on Tuesday also approved a series of restrictions under which masks are to be required outdoors for gatherings of 100 people or more; in-office work for public servants is to be scaled back to 50 percent, with the private sector encouraged to allow employees to work from home; and vaccinated caretakers of infected children under 12 years old are to be required to self-isolate.

The new restrictions are an attempt to slow the outbreak, which has been blamed on the fast-spreading Delta variant.

Speaking to the Kan public broadcaster on Saturday, senior health official Sharon Alroy-Preis assured viewers that a national lockdown “is not an option that is necessary right now,” adding that it would be a “last resort.”

The Health Ministry’s head of public health services said that she preferred using more restrained tools in an effort to curb the spread.

Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, head of public health services in the Health Ministry, at a press conference in Jerusalem on June 23, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

However, Alroy-Preis expressed backing for using new infections as benchmarks for when to intensify restrictions, as opposed to serious cases, which Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has preferred.

“We think it is better to manage [restrictions] according to the number of confirmed cases, because when there is an increase in serious cases, there will already be a large number of total confirmed cases, and by then the tools we will have at our disposal to solve the uptick will be more limited,” she said.

Channel 12 reported on Friday that the Health Ministry held initial discussions to determine the point at which it will recommend a national lockdown.

According to the network, health experts indicated that a lockdown would be necessary if and when Israel reaches a total of 600 to 700 seriously ill patients.

Unnamed health officials told the network that even if the government “hits the brakes” at 600-700 such cases, the number would still likely grow to 1,200-1,400.

However, the officials noted that if they see a decrease in serious cases as a result of the campaign to distribute a third booster shot to Israelis over 60, the government may be able to hold off on another lockdown.

The network said another factor that could stave off a lockdown would be a drop the virus’s basic reproduction number — or the number of new cases each infected person creates.

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