Over 750 new COVID cases reported for 3rd day; deaths, serious illnesses rise

Infections appear to plateau; top health official Sharon Alroy-Preis gets health minister’s support after report suggests education minister seeking her ouster

People eating at Sarona market in Tel Aviv on July 13, 2021. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
People eating at Sarona market in Tel Aviv on July 13, 2021. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Israel recorded just over 750 new cases of the coronavirus Wednesday for the third straight day, as the country’s mounting health crisis appeared to plateau, albeit at a level of morbidity not seen in nearly six months.

Health Ministry figures showed 765 new cases on Wednesday, after Monday and Tuesday saw 761 cases and 756 cases respectively. There are now over 5,300 active cases in the country, the highest figure since April 5.

The number of patients in serious condition ticked up slightly to 54, and two more deaths brought the number of those who died from COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic at 6,443. In the last week, 14 people have died from the virus, after Israel went two weeks without recording a single death.

The government has thus far resisted reimposing broad restrictions on movement or businesses, though Prime Minister Naftali Bennett warned Wednesday that a lockdown could be needed if existing health rules are not heeded.

“We can beat the Delta variant without lockdowns if we are all diligent and determined,” he asserted at a press conference, telling the public to make sure to wear masks indoors, get vaccinated and keep their distance from others in public.

“The easiest thing, like they [the previous government] repeatedly did over the past year and a half, is to shut everything down. We may indeed end up there but we are going to try a different path this time. And it depends on all of us,” Bennett said.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett delivers a statement in Jerusalem, Wednesday, July 14, 2021. (AP/Maya Alleruzzo)

Health authorities have said they would prefer policies that focus on limiting large gatherings, especially indoors.

“We’ve learned in the past that gatherings in a closed space with hundreds of people without masks are virus hotspots,” Dr. Galia Rahav, the head of the infectious diseases unit at Sheba Medical Center, told Army Radio Thursday. “We’re not talking about a lockdown, but there needs to be enforcement and compliance.”

Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton, a leading critic of government health restrictions, is reportedly seeking political support for the ouster of Sharon Alroy-Preis, head of public health in the Health Ministry, over her support for restrictive measures.

Shasha-Biton recently asked Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz and Bennett to okay the removal of Alroy-Preis, who has been one of the main figures leading the ministry’s response to the health crisis, the Ynet news website reported Thursday.

New Minister of Education Yifat Shasha-Biton speaks at a ceremony as she takes over from Yoav Gallant, at the Education Ministry in Jerusalem on June 14, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/FLASH90)

On Twitter, Horowitz backed Alroy-Preis, calling her “one of the most talented and dedicated professionals we have in public health.”

“Sharon will continue to be a leading figure managing the battle against the coronavirus,” he wrote. “I suggest those looking for headlines look elsewhere.”

Shasha-Biton has repeatedly questioned the Health Ministry’s data and justification for advising lockdowns and other measures, leading to sometimes testy exchanges with health professionals in Knesset committee meetings.

Despite the renewed outbreak, ministers decided Tuesday to ease up on restrictions, shortening quarantine to seven days from the current 10-14 days and declining to back a Health Ministry proposal that would have reimposed some limits on gatherings.

Alroy-Preis told ministers at the meeting that hospitals are already burdened and that reducing the length of quarantine is risky, Channel 13 news reported.

Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, head of public health services in the Health Ministry, at a press conference in Jerusalem on June 23, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

According to the station, Shasha-Biton headed the resistance to imposing new restrictions, warning that encouraging inoculation at the same time would send a “mixed message” to the public.

The Health Ministry is hoping to partially reintroduce the Green Pass framework limiting access to some public events or large gatherings to those who have been vaccinated or recently tested. The system 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.

The resurgence of the virus, blamed on the more contagious Delta variant, comes as over half of Israel’s population is fully vaccinated, with many cases reported among the immunized.

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