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Pandemic could last another year, 3rd lockdown may be needed

New virus czar announces antibody testing program to grant ‘green passports’

Nachman Ash says serological testing to be used to issue papers and reportedly reduce need for quarantine; ministers confirm grades 10-12 back to school in low infection areas

An Israeli laboratory worker conducts serological tests for coronavirus at the Leumit Health Care Services laboratory in Or Yehuda, near Tel Aviv on June 29, 2020. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)
An Israeli laboratory worker conducts serological tests for coronavirus at the Leumit Health Care Services laboratory in Or Yehuda, near Tel Aviv on June 29, 2020. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)

New coronavirus czar Nachman Ash announced on Thursday that health authorities would start granting a new “green passport” for those who undergo serological testing and are found to be carrying antibodies for the coronavirus.

Ash said the paperwork would be issued to Israelis who are less likely to be infected or transmit the virus, including those who have recovered from the COVID-19.

He said health maintenance organizations (HMOs) will start conducting one million antibody tests, with those who receive confirmation of antibodies granted the documentation.

Ash did not elaborate on what benefits those with a “green passport” will have, but according to the Kan public broadcaster, those with the paperwork could be exempted from quarantine after visiting countries with high infection rates or after coming in contact with a verified carrier — under current regulations both of those instances require 12 days of self-isolation and two negative coronavirus tests.

Coronavirus czar Nachman Ash briefs the press, November 26, 2020 (Health Ministry)

Additionally, it could allow Israelis to visit the “tourist islands” of Eilat and the Dead Sea without undergoing a coronavirus test before entry.

The outlet said the first to be tested in the hope of receiving the passport would be nursing home residents and staff and their family members, as well as the relatives of people confirmed to have had the virus in the past.

However, the announcement came alongside a warning from Ash that it could take a full year until the coronavirus pandemic ends. He said he would not hesitate to recommend a third national lockdown if necessary.

“It will take time. There are difficult days ahead. It won’t be easy, it won’t be short. My working assumption is that the coronavirus will remain with us for the next year,” Ash said in his first briefing since officially assuming the role earlier this month.

An effective vaccination campaign of the population could, optimistically, end in mid-2021, he said. However, it may only be completed “toward the end of next year,” he said.

Ash urged Israelis to prepare for another full year of life under pandemic restrictions, saying that the current virus figures were “worrisome.”

Hospital team members move patients to the new coronavirus ward of Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem, on November 16, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“With the reopening of trade and studies, more personal responsibility is required before a rapid deterioration occurs,” Ash said.

“Will there be a third closure and when will it be? This is definitely on the agenda,” he said. “I will not hesitate in the future to recommend a national lockdown if it is required.”

Ash’s comments came after hospital heads in Israel were reported to unanimously agree the country is heading into a third wave of coronavirus infections.

Meanwhile, ministers voted on Thursday evening to confirm an earlier decision by the coronavirus cabinet that high schoolers in grades 10-12 in low infection areas designated green and yellow will go back to the classroom on Sunday.

Students in a classroom at Orot Etzion School, in the settlement of Efrat in the West Bank, on November 24, 2020. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

The vote came as the Education Ministry said on Thursday night that there were 1,792 students and 496 teaching staff diagnosed as active virus carriers, amid concerns the widening reopening of the education system could be causing a spike in cases.

However, it was unclear how much the figures reflected the easing of restrictions on in-person learning as they included Israeli children and teens who were learning remotely as well as in classrooms, and also included students in grades 5-6 who only returned to school earlier this week.

Those figures were announced as a fight reportedly started to brew between unions and parents over the upcoming Hanukkah holiday next month. Unions are saying teaching staff need a break while parents want children to remain in the education system over the holiday, Channel 13 news reported.

Israel on Thursday surpassed 1,000 virus cases a day for the first time in a month, according to Health Ministry figures.

The milestone was the latest indication that the spread of the virus may be re-accelerating, even as the government pushes ahead with reopening the country from its second lockdown.

There were 1,071 new cases diagnosed on Wednesday, the ministry figures released on Thursday evening showed. The last time Israel saw daily cases above a thousand was October 22.

Two fatalities since the morning took the death toll to 2,829.

Medical personnel wearing protective equipment cover the body of a man who died from COVID-19, in the intensive care ward for coronavirus patients at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, November 23, 2020. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

After topping 9,000 on Wednesday for the first time in nearly three weeks, the active number of coronavirus cases in the country rose to 9,427 out of a total 332,937 cases.

Of those sick with the virus, 276 were in serious condition, with 114 patients on ventilators. There were 82 people in moderate condition.

The positive test rate stood at 1.8 percent, with 60,671 tests carried out on Wednesday.

A Magen David Adom worker takes a patient to the coronavirus unit at the Hadassah Ein Kerem hospital in Jerusalem, on November 1, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Despite the rising figures, cabinet ministers overnight approved a pilot plan to open 15 malls around the country on Friday.

Outdoor market areas and some museums will also be allowed to reopen as part of the pilot program, which aims to test the efficacy of virus safety guidelines.

Israel imposed a monthlong lockdown on September 18 that succeeded in bringing down surging infection rates but also paralyzed much of the economy and public life, as well as shuttering the entire education system. The government has since begun lifting the restrictions but health officials have sounded alarms as the drop in infection rates first slowed, and then reversed.

Israelis stand in line outside a clothing shop advertising Black Friday sales in Tel Aviv, on November 25, 2020. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

The virus’s basic reproduction number — the average number of people each virus carrier infects — rose above 1 in the last days of October for the first time since the second national lockdown began to be rolled back earlier that month, and continued to rise before slackening slightly in early November.

Figures released Thursday, which were based on new case numbers from 10 days earlier due to the virus’s incubation period, showed the figure at 1.01, a slight drop from a day earlier.

A basic reproduction number of over 1 indicates that case numbers will begin to expand exponentially.

The coronavirus cabinet, a forum of ministers dealing with the outbreak, had initially decided that the lockdown exit should only start if the transmission rate is under 0.8. Under the Health Ministry’s plan, rollback measures are supposed to be halted if the rate rises. The government has ignored that benchmark, however, pressing on with easing restrictions.

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