Number of confirmed virus cases hits 529 as testing ramps up

Jump of 96 sick people over day earlier, partially due to increase in number of tests given; most patients doing well, 6 remain in serious condition

Workers wearing protective clothes disinfect a public playground in the coastal city of Bat Yam, on March 18, 2020 (Flash90)
Workers wearing protective clothes disinfect a public playground in the coastal city of Bat Yam, on March 18, 2020 (Flash90)

The number of Israelis diagnosed with coronavirus rose to 529 Thursday morning, a spike of 96 new cases from a day earlier, the Health Ministry said.

The last two days alone have seen almost 200 new confirmed cases, with the sharp rise at least partially attributable to increased testing throughout the country.

Six of those ill were in serious condition, 13 were in moderate condition and the rest were doing well. The six serious cases are reportedly all elderly patients with previous medical conditions.

So far, the Health Ministry has confirmed that 12 people have fully recovered from the virus.

The ministry’s latest daily numbers were issued several hours later than usual, with officials saying the update was delayed by an increase in tests and testing facilities that led to more data to parse through.

In recent days the Health Ministry has boosted testing for the virus from some 500-700 a day to around 2,200 every day on Tuesday and Wednesday, with efforts to reach 3,000 daily.

It was also set to imminently introduce drive-through testing stations in several major cities that would allow easier and safer mass scanning procedures, though the planned opening of the first such facility in Tel Aviv on Wednesday was delayed due to a shortage of test kits.

Overnight, the Mossad spy agency reportedly brought some 100,000 coronavirus test kits into the country, amid claims of insufficient medical equipment in hospitals and clinics. But Itamar Grotto, the deputy director-general of the Health Ministry, said the kits did not contain the equipment medical officials were most in need of — swabs.

On Wednesday night the Defense Ministry said it would take over purchases of all equipment related to the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic in an effort to make the process more efficient.

Israeli officials are hoping that strict measures limiting movement will help stem the virus’s spread before it gets worse, but authorities have said Israel may soon see cases in the thousands and its first deaths from the pathogen.

Grotto earlier warned the country could be headed to a total lockdown if its required to stop the spread of the contagion, but such a step could still be avoided if the public adheres to instructions to stay inside their homes and avoid venturing out as much as possible.

The government introduced sweeping new restrictions to curb the spread of the coronavirus on Tuesday, instructing Israelis not to leave their homes unless absolutely necessary, but stopping short of imposing a mandatory lockdown.

Grotto told Army Radio on Thursday that officials would prefer to take the drastic measure to stamp out the virus. “We would have liked to have a full lockdown, but if the public listens to orders there will be less need for it,” Grotto said.

The empty Chan Rosh Pina Mall in the northern city of Rosh Pina, March 18, 2020 (David Cohen/Flash90)

Officials have indicated a lockdown could be imposed in the coming days. On Tuesday, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan instructed the Israel Police to prepare for a complete lockdown of the country, calling such a move “inevitable.”

The directives are not yet being enforced by police. In recent days leaders were dismayed by many Israelis continuing to go out to the beach and to public parks despite the crisis — though following the announcement of the latest restrictions those numbers were reported to have gone down.

Israelis shop for groceries at a supermarket in Jerusalem on March 18, 2020 (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov said Thursday that a total lockdown, if enacted, would still include the ability for Israelis to leave their homes for short periods, but not to congregate in any way.

“Going out for a walk will be possible, but anything that leads to any kind of gathering of people, or grouping together, will be forbidden,” he told the Kan public broadcaster.

Police, he said, would enforce the restrictions to prevent any such gathering.

Bar Siman-Tov has previously warned that that thousands of Israelis could die of the virus if anti-contagion measures applied so far were not adhered to.

On Tuesday, Erdan requested that police and security chiefs urgently prepare and present to him a detailed plan for implementing a countrywide lockdown, in which only essential workers would be allowed to leave their homes while other citizens would only be allowed out in order to buy supplies and for medical treatment.

Israel has already ordered all leisure and recreation sites closed, along with schools, universities and kindergartens. Many places of work have also been instructed to have employees work from home where possible, or put them on leave.

A sign announcing the closure of a playground in the northern city of Safed, March 18, 2020 (David Cohen/Flash90)

On Wednesday the Health Ministry announced it has begun using mass surveillance tools to retrace the movements of coronavirus carriers and had already informed 400 people in contact with them that they must enter quarantine.

The electronic tracking program, which is being conducted by the Shin Bet security service for the ministry, has faced harsh criticism, including by members of the government, and its legality is currently being challenged in the High Court of Justice.

The measures also allow the police to use phone data to enforce quarantines or shelter in place orders. The government has yet to approve a mechanism to punish rule-breakers.

The health crisis comes amid political brinkmanship that has left the Knesset paralyzed after a third election failed to yield decisive results.

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein (Likud) on Wednesday ordered the Knesset shut at least until Monday after the Blue and White party refused his proposal of having equal representation in the Knesset’s so-called Arrangements Committee, which is tasked with overseeing the formation and operation of the parliament.

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