PA orders new lockdown in West Bank as hospitals reach 100% capacity

Curfew fails to quell rising infections among Palestinians; health official: ‘There’s been nothing like this since the beginning of the pandemic’

Palestinian health workers at a hospital in the West Bank town of Nablus, where health workers were vaccinated against the coronavirus after the delivery of vaccine doses from Israel. February 03, 2021 (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)
Palestinian health workers at a hospital in the West Bank town of Nablus, where health workers were vaccinated against the coronavirus after the delivery of vaccine doses from Israel. February 03, 2021 (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

West Bank Palestinian areas will enter a week of total lockdown on Monday amidst what officials described as an unprecedented coronavirus cases spike, the Palestinian Authority announced on Sunday.

“The virus is spreading incredibly widely and quickly. There’s been nothing like this since the beginning of the pandemic,” Health Ministry spokesperson Kamal al-Shakhra told Voice of Palestine Radio on Saturday morning.

A nightly curfew with a weekend lockdown has already been in place across the West Bank for two weeks, but it has seemingly failed to stem the tide of infections.

Many West Bank Areas — including Ramallah, Bethlehem, Tubas and Tulkarem — had already entered total lockdown last week by order of the local governor.

Active coronavirus infections in the West Bank have nearly doubled over the past two weeks, from 9,632 to 18,599 active cases. The death toll has also been rising rapidly, with the West Bank seeing 27 deaths in the past 24 hours.

But with poor testing — only around 5,500 tests were administered by the Palestinian Authority on Saturday to its more than 2.8 million residents — infections may be far higher than known. Around 30 percent of coronavirus tests came back positive across the West Bank on Saturday, indicating that the virus was likely spreading widely undetected.

Palestinian health workers at a hospital in the West Bank town of Nablus, where health workers were vaccinated against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) earlier today, after the delivery of vaccine doses from Israel. February 3, 2021. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

“The situation is concerning, and we’re not yet sure where it will go from here,” Palestinian health official Dr. Salwa Najjab told The Times of Israel in a phone call.

According to Najjab, the West Bank had for some time been doing much better than the densely populated Gaza Strip. But the coastal enclave has seemingly beaten back the virus for the time being, even as infections have spiraled out of control in West Bank areas.

“Schools were opened here and there’s been little adherence to social distancing or mask-wearing,” said Najjab, a member of the Palestinian Authority’s national coronavirus committee.

Like other health officials, Najjab also blamed the so-called British variant of the coronavirus, which both spreads faster and kills more of those infected.

“We see that it not only infects quickly, but it also harms children and young people,” Najjab noted. Such cases had been far rarer during the first and second wave of the pandemic.

According to the Health Ministry, hospitals across the West Bank have hit capacity. A new field hospital is set to open near Ramallah in an attempt to absorb at least some of the new wave of cases unable to get a bed in government hospitals.

“We’ve opened new wards as the situation has deteriorated. But the wards open and the numbers continue to rise…We’re at 100% capacity in general, even at 110% capacity in some hospitals,” al-Shakhra said.

The West Bank’s latest total lockdown will begin on Monday and end on Saturday night, when health officials will re-assess the situation.

But in contrast to previous lockdowns, local Palestinian governors will also be allowed to opt out of whatever provisions they choose.

“Every governorate will be allowed to take whatever steps are appropriate to both protect public health and the economic well-being of its people,” PA government spokesperson Ibrahim Melhem told official Palestinian TV.

No vaccine in sight

While the Palestinian Authority opened a website on Wednesday where its citizens could register to be vaccinated against the coronavirus, there was one major component missing: the vaccines themselves.

Israel has surged ahead in immunizing its population, but Palestinians have yet to see a public vaccination campaign. The Palestinian Authority has contracted with several providers — including AstraZeneca and nations Russia and China — to acquire doses, but very few have arrived.

Palestinian Authority officials have repeatedly set public deadlines for the vaccines’ arrival — only to see them fall through. Late January, early Feburary, mid-February and early March were all named as potential arrival dates, but none came to pass.

Palestinians sit as PA Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh opens a hospital for COVID-19 patients in the West Bank city of Nablus, on January 16, 2021. (Nasser Ishtayeh/ Flash90)

Ramallah has said it anticipates receiving 2 million doses of the AstraZenaca vaccine sometime in April. According to PA Health Minister Mai al-Kaila, around 100,000 Chinese Sinopharm vaccines are expected to arrive in the coming weeks.

The PA also expects to receive around 37,000 Pfizer vaccines and between 240,000 – 405,600 AstraZeneca vaccines from the COVAX framework, a global vaccine program for poor and middle-income countries backed by the World Health Organization.

After numerous bureaucratic hurdles, the Pfizer vaccines, intended for use by medical staff, are set to reach Ramallah on March 17th, a WHO spokesperson told The Times of Israel.

Around 12,000 doses have reached the Palestinian Authority so far — 2,000 Moderna vaccines from Israel and 10,000 doses of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine. Around 2,000 of those were sent to Gaza, with another 200 sent to Jordan, according to the PA Health Ministry.

The remaining 9,800 vaccines were allocated to the West Bank, the Health Ministry said. But accusations of nepotism and corruption have dogged their distribution, with a substantial number of shots reportedly going to those close to government officials rather than to healthcare workers.

In a statement, Ramallah acknowledged that some doses went to government officials, some young students and the Palestinian national soccer team. But they maintained that 90 percent of the vaccines were given to front-line healthcare workers.

Palestinian workers unload a truck from 20,000 doses of Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine upon its arrival to Gaza Strip, at the Rafah crossing border with Egypt, February 21, 2021. (Khalil Hamra/AP)

With the Palestinian health care system close to collapse, al-Kaila announced on Wednesday that the PA had received a shipment of ten ventilators and other medical equipment from a charity based in the United Arab Emirates.

The International Charity Organization, a government-backed charity, was responsible for the shipment, al-Kaila said. Funding had also been provided by the Palestinian diaspora community living in the Emirates.

A Palestinian health official told reporters that the Emirati government-aligned nonprofit was discussing funding additional coronavirus vaccines for Palestinians, beginning with “the poor and marginalized” in Palestinian society.

A spokesperson for the Emirati Foreign Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

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