New restrictions likely if virus outbreak expands, top health official warns
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New restrictions likely if virus outbreak expands, top health official warns

Itamar Grotto says authorities have plan to deal with centralized outbreak without renewed lockdown; is most worried by rise in percentage of tests coming back positive

Israeli medical personnel take samples at a drive-thru COVID-19 testing facility in Ramat Hasharon near Tel Aviv, on June 1, 2020. (Jack Guez/AFP)
Israeli medical personnel take samples at a drive-thru COVID-19 testing facility in Ramat Hasharon near Tel Aviv, on June 1, 2020. (Jack Guez/AFP)

A senior Health Ministry official said Tuesday that coronavirus restrictions would be reimposed if more than 100 cases in a day are identified that aren’t mostly connected to a single local outbreak, amid an upward trend in infections over the past week.

He also said Israel has the ability to test as many as 40,000 people per day, but is choosing not to.

Israel has taken steps in recent weeks to roll back its virus restrictions, reopening schools, synagogues, malls, restaurants and other spaces. While social distancing and hygiene guidelines remain in place, many have taken a more relaxed attitude as the virus appeared to wane, including regarding instructions to wear masks in most settings outside the home.

That resulted in a renewed outbreak starting last week, when for the first time in weeks the number of daily new confirmed infections was higher than 100.

The Health Ministry said Tuesday that 113 new cases had been confirmed in the previous 24 hours, with most of them centered in schools, particularly the Gymnasia Rehavia high school in Jerusalem where 159 students and staff have been infected over the past week.

The Education Ministry said a total of 217 people had been confirmed to be infected in schools and kindergartens, that 9,935 students and education staff members were in quarantine and that 31 institutions had temporarily closed down over the past week.

“If there are 100 cases in a day that aren’t connected to that single outbreak epicenter, we will need to reimpose restrictions,” Deputy Health Ministry Director General Itamar Grotto told a Knesset committee overseeing the coronavirus response on Tuesday.

“Right now, when it’s focused in one place, we have a containment plan that doesn’t involve the whole population,” he said.

Deputy director-general of the Health Ministry Itamar Grotto judges the final EnRoute presentation at the Time to Care contest, January 8-9, 2020. (Courtesy)

Grotto said the number of daily tests had gone up recently and reached 7,837 on Monday.

He claimed that thanks to new deals signed with two testing labs, Israel now “has the capacity to reach 40,000 tests a day.” Grotto added, though, that “currently we are not sending people to do tests for no reason.”

He says what worried him was not the number of cases, but the rise in the rate of test samples coming back positive for the novel coronavirus.

“We’ve gone from half a percent to 1.5%,” Grotto said.

He added that Israel was still on track to rescind any remaining restrictions on businesses and other institutions on June 14, though the date may change slightly.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein on Sunday announced plans to expand virus testing to those not showing symptoms and sternly warned Israelis against relaxing social distancing and hygiene habits.

Medical services have thus far largely limited testing to those displaying symptoms of the virus and have resisted calls to conduct mass testing to detect suspected asymptomatic carriers. As he unveiled the looser criteria for testing, Edelstein stressed that even those who test negative must remain in 14-day quarantine if they were exposed to a virus patient or displayed symptoms of COVID-19.

On Monday, Channel 12 said Edelstein had barred all the senior officials in the Health Ministry from giving media interviews, since some of them oppose Edelstein’s move to allow testing of asymptomatic people. He wanted to prevent contradictory statements being made by different ministry officials, the report said.

A picture shows the entrance to the Gymnasia Rehavia high school in Jerusalem on May 31, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Outgoing Health Ministry Director-General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov said Sunday a sharp rise in virus cases may represent a broader trend and not be connected specifically to schools.

The Health Ministry on Tuesday reported two new coronavirus deaths, after several days with no fatalities, bringing the toll to 287.

The tally stood at 17,219, of whom 14,950 have recovered. The number of active cases, which dipped below 2,000 last week, continued to grow and stood at 2,017.

Of them, 31 were in serious condition, with 30 on a ventilator. Forty were in moderate condition, and the rest were displaying mild or no symptoms.

After several weeks of no more than 50 daily infections, Friday saw a significant jump of 115 new coronavirus infections over 24 hours, the first time that the 100 mark was breached since May 2. Saturday saw another jump, in what health officials attributed to public complacency and failure to heed social distancing rules.

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