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Positive virus tests hit lowest rate since August as outbreak appears to ebb

Figures show 3-week lockdown is working; 8 cities account for 40% of confirmed cases, 6 of them are home to major Haredi population centers

People walk past a billboard posted by the Health Ministry instructing people to wear face masks, in Jerusalem on October 11, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
People walk past a billboard posted by the Health Ministry instructing people to wear face masks, in Jerusalem on October 11, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Health Ministry said Monday morning that fewer than 8 percent of coronavirus tests came back positive, as Israel continued to see transmission rates decline amid a nationwide lockdown.

On Sunday, 1,609 people tested positive for the coronavirus, out of 22,777 tests administered.

Positivity rates had hovered at around 12%-13% in recent weeks, at one point reaching a high of 15%, but dropped precipitously to 7.3% on Saturday.

Both Saturday and Sunday saw dramatically lower testing rates, likely due to a regular weekend dip, but possibly also indicating the existence of fewer suspected cases.

Testing numbers have fallen sharply recently from a record high last month of 50,000-60,000 tests on some days.

Officials have noted that a reduced number of tests usually raises the positivity rate, while the figure has been steadily declining in recent days, pointing to success in efforts to bring runaway infection cases under control.

Magen David Adom workers wearing protective clothing seen outside the coronavirus unit at Shaare Zedek Hospital in Jerusalem on October 11, 2020. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Sunday’s figures seemed to confirm that the Saturday drop signaled an overall downward trend in infections.

Both the 7.3% and 7.7% figures are the lowest recorded since August 31, when 7.2% of cases came back positive.

In the six weeks since, Israel has recorded over 1,000 deaths, and nearly 200,000 new cases.

According to Health Ministry figures Monday, there have been 291,828 people infected since the start of the pandemic, of which 51,698 remain active cases, a drop of nearly 10,000 since the day earlier.

The death toll Monday morning was 1,983, three more than the night before.

Ministry figures showed 1,553 people are hospitalized with the virus, 823 of them in serious condition and 224 on ventilators.

That’s a drop of 64 serious patients from Saturday, though over two dozen people died Sunday.

Despite the favorable trend, on Sunday, the IDF’s Coronavirus National Information and Knowledge Center said the positive test and infection rates were still relatively high.

Hospital workers in protective gear are seen in the coronavirus ward at Ziv Medical Center in the northern city of Safed on October 7, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Regional figures show that the capital Jerusalem, Israel’s largest city, is also home to the largest number of active cases, 5,956, followed by Bnei Brak (4,676), Modiin Illit (2,293), Ashdod (1,958), Tel Aviv (1,819), Netanya (1,434), Petah Tikva (1,432) and Beit Shemesh (1,250).

Those eight municipalities account for some 40% of all confirmed cases, and six of them, including the top four, are home to large Haredi populations, which have been hit especially hard by the virus.

Israel has been under a national lockdown for the past three weeks to contain a raging second wave of the pandemic, which at one point reached some 9,000 daily cases. However, recent days have seen both the number of daily cases and the percentage of positive tests go down amid sweeping restrictions on the public.

A report on Saturday said the Health Ministry’s plan to gradually ease the national coronavirus lockdown will last at least four months and depend on decreasing daily case numbers.

The plan proposes target dates for the different stages of lifting restrictions, but any easing of the limitations could be pushed off if the infection rate hasn’t dropped enough.

Yifat Shasha-Biton at a Housing Ministry ceremony in Jerusalem on May 18, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

However, Knesset Coronavirus Committee head MK Yifat Shasha-Biton, a vocal critic of the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic who has reversed some decisions made by the cabinet, on Sunday told Army Radio that the lockdown should begin to be lifted immediately.

“We need it to be now, not in a week. There are restrictions that everyone knows have no epidemiological logic, so why wait? Society is getting crushed,” she said.

Last month as Israel entered its second national lockdown, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu acknowledged that his government reopened parts of the economy too quickly after the first lockdown.

People wearing face masks walk through the largely shuttered Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem on October 7, 2020, (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The coalition has been accused of shuttering small businesses to justify imposing emergency regulations that grant the government authority to limit protests against the prime minister, as well as preventing some activities, such as going to the beach, to justify the shuttering of synagogues.

Shasha-Biton also said that the exit from the lockdown and the regulations for the pandemic must be set at a local, and not national level, dependent on infection rates.

“We need to talk about outbreaks — not in terms of communities, but in terms of areas. They did not do it [previously] for a lot of considerations, some of them political, and we need to return to differential treatment,” Shasha-Biton said.

The exit plan from the second lockdown involves the so-called traffic light program, which divides towns into color-coded categories of red, orange, yellow and green according to the severity of the outbreak they are experiencing.

Officials have said different locales could see different timelines for lifting the lockdown. However, that same system collapsed earlier in the year when the ultra-Orthodox public protested it was being singled out.

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