Official reportedly warns lockdown could be ordered for Rosh Hashanah

Ministers presented with predictions that serious COVID-19 cases could hit 1,000 in five weeks’ time; patterns of serious illness similar to previous waves

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Police at a temporary checkpoint outside Jerusalem's Old City, on September 19, 2020, during a nationwide lockdown on Rosh Hashana. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Police at a temporary checkpoint outside Jerusalem's Old City, on September 19, 2020, during a nationwide lockdown on Rosh Hashana. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Despite its successful vaccination campaign, Israel could be placed under lockdown during the Rosh Hashanah holiday period in early September, according to an official who attended a Tuesday cabinet meeting on coronavirus policy amid a resurgence of COVID-19 cases, Channel 12 news reported on Wednesday.

The source, who was not identified, reportedly said that if the public is not diligent in keeping the few remaining health orders aimed at curbing infections, a lockdown could be imposed over the Jewish New Year, which this year falls on September 6-8.

Israel has had three nationwide lockdowns since the start of the pandemic, but its widespread vaccination campaign, which has seen a majority of its citizens immunized, was meant to avert future closures.

The television report did not detail what the conditions of such a Rosh Hashanah lockdown might be. Since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak in the country in March 2020, the government ordered various lockdowns mostly limiting Israelis to staying within a short distance to their home, banning them from visiting the homes of others, and on one occasion, briefly confining citizens to their homes.

Rosh Hashanah and the High Holiday period is marked with crowded prayers at synagogues as well as widespread social gatherings, making the traditional annual practices a danger for virus spread.

Ministers and health officials are said to be divided over how to respond to the recent outbreak that has seen daily COVID-19 cases jump from around two dozen a month ago to over 700 in recent days. The number of seriously ill patients has also been climbing.

Whereas health officials are urging ministers to apply restrictions on public life, the government has instead focused on urging teenagers to get vaccinated and for people to wear face masks indoors, one of the few health orders still being applied.

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz holds a press conference, together with PM Naftali Bennett (not seen) at the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem on July 14, 2021. (Noam Revkin Fenton/FLASH90)

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz on Wednesday night told Channel 12 the government would balance its health considerations with “the need to continue daily life.”

“We need to live with it,” Horowitz said of the virus.

Earlier in the day, Horowitz gave a joint press conference with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who maintained that lockdowns can be avoided if the public heeds the health rules but warned closures could eventually be reimposed as a last resort if they do not.

The Tuesday night meeting of the coronavirus cabinet, a panel of ministers tasked with forming virus policy, ended without any fresh restrictions ordered. The cabinet did, however, reduce the quarantine period to seven days in the hope that the public would be more inclined to keep to isolation rules than under the previous system when quarantine was at least 10 days, or as much as 14.

During the meeting, ministers were presented with figures showing that two percent of all recent COVID-19 patients become seriously ill, Channel 12 reported. The number matches the ratio seen in previous outbreaks of the virus in the country. The cabinet was also shown a projection that if the current trends continue, in five weeks there will be 1,000 seriously ill coronavirus patients in the country — up from its current 52.

Seriously ill cases peaked at over 1,180 in January this year, at which point hospitals were running out of resources to properly treat all the COVID patients.

Head of public health services at the Health Ministry, Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, told ministers that hospitals are already burdened and that reducing quarantine is a risk, Channel 13 news reported.

The Health Ministry also presented ministers at the cabinet meeting with a proposal to partially reintroduce a framework limiting access to some public events, though no final decision was made.

The so-called Green Pass system, which was used temporarily in the past, would apply to indoor events attended by more than 100 people, such as weddings, performances, gyms, restaurants, cafeterias and houses of worship.

Unvaccinated people, or those who have not recovered from the virus, will be barred entry unless they take a rapid virus test outside the venue or present a negative virus test taken in the previous 48 hours.

The system would not be applied to malls, trade areas, or public transportation.

Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton arrives at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem for a group photo with members of the new government, June 14, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

According to the station, there was disagreement among ministers on using the Green Pass.

Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton warned that encouraging inoculation while also introducing restrictions would send a “mixed message” to the public.

By contrast, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked pushed for applying the Green Pass system not only to indoor venues as suggested by the Health Ministry, but also to open-air sites, Channel 13 said.

An unidentified senior health official told Channel 13 that the Green Pass needs to be applied right away, saying: “It is not a limitation, it is a way of life. If it is not decided on soon then we will need to take more painful steps.”

Health Ministry figures released Wednesday showed that there are 5,220 confirmed COVID-19 patients in the country, of which 52 are in serious condition. There were 756 new COVID-19 cases diagnosed the day before.

Over 5.2 million of Israel’s 9.2 million citizens are fully vaccinated.

Also Wednesday, Health Ministry Director-General Nachman Ash signed off on the order to reduce quarantine, the Health Ministry said in a statement.

Under the new rules, people can end their isolation after seven days if they take two virus tests that are both negative. The first must be taken as close as possible to the start of the quarantine, and the second from the seventh day of the quarantine, but at least 24 hours after the first.

The Health Ministry said that people can exit quarantine as soon as the second negative virus test result comes back, and there is no need to wait for authorization from the ministry.

Those who have not been vaccinated or have not recovered from COVID-19 are required to quarantine after exposure to virus carriers or international travel. The vaccinated and recovered are not required to enter isolation unless they are confirmed to have the virus — though all arrivals from abroad will soon need to enter quarantine for 24 hours or until they receive a negative test result, even if vaccinated.

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