Outgoing Health Ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman-Tov on Sunday said Israel could overcome the current COVID-19 resurgence without reimposing a nationwide lockdown.
Bar Siman-Tov told Kan radio he was surprised by the speed at which Israel appears to have been hit by a second wave of the coronavirus, but said authorities could still curb the spread without shutting down the economy.
“We can still be relatively optimistic and flatten the curve without a lockdown. We need to keep the guidelines, especially regarding masks. There was an issue with keeping people aware that the coronavirus was not a one-off that came and went. We need to convince the public of how important it is. I think the public, and everybody, was quite tired,” he said.
Sunday marked Bar Siman-Tov’s last day on the job, after Prof. Chezy Levy was confirmed as his replacement earlier in the day.
Bar Siman-Tov also defended his decision not to fire his deputy, Itamar Grotto, who was exposed as having given a visiting billionaire a pass to ignore virus rules. He said Levy would deal with the matter and “there are facts which are still not clear.”
In his role as Health Ministry director-general, Bar Siman-Tov, an economist, oversaw the the country’s handling of the pandemic and has been credited with a fast response to the spread that prevented a wider outbreak.
After a sustained decline that saw the number of new cases each day dropping to low single digits, Israel has seen a significant spike in the infection rate over recent weeks. On Thursday, over 200 cases were recorded in a 24-hour period for the first time since late April.
The Health Ministry on Saturday night said 177 coronavirus cases had been diagnosed over the previous 24 hours, as new infections in the vicinity of the prime minister and president prompted concerns regarding their health.
Three security guards at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s residence tested positive for the pathogen. Netanyahu’s office said tests were carried out for the premier and others at the residence. The guards’ came back positive while Netanyahu was negative.
“The prime minister isn’t required to quarantine because the guards weren’t in his vicinity,” a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office said.
Meanwhile, the President’s Residence said that over the weekend a staff member tested positive. After consultations with health officials it was said that President Reuven Rivlin would not need to isolate, but the residence would be cleaned and employees would be tested.
The latest infections brought the total cases in the country since the start of the pandemic to 19,008. The number of active cases was 3,348.
According to the Health Ministry, 34 people are in serious condition, 26 of whom are on ventilators. Another 46 are in moderate condition and the rest have mild symptoms. The death toll remains at 300.
Health officials have attributed much of the recent rise in new cases to schools, which reopened in May after a two-month closure.
As of Thursday, 460 students and teachers had tested positive for the virus, with another 25,517 in quarantine, according to Education Ministry figures. Over 165 educational institutions have been shuttered due to infections.
In light of the rise in cases, the government has ordered police to increase enforcement of social distancing rules, with more fines being handed out to individuals for not wearing masks and to businesses failing to adhere to Health Ministry guidelines.
Netanyahu warned Thursday that sweeping measures meant to contain the virus could be reimposed if the recent spike in new cases continues.
Despite his warning, the government on Friday approved the holding of certain events of up to 250 people starting Sunday. These include weddings and religious ceremonies, such as circumcisions and bar and bat mitzvahs. Other events are still capped at 50 participants, and have to take place in an open area, a joint statement from Netanyahu’s office and the Health Ministry said.
The decision has led many event halls to announce they will reopen, with necessary hygiene guidelines.