The rate of coronavirus tests returning positive has fallen to 2.1 percent, the lowest level recorded since June 21, according to data released by the Health Ministry on Tuesday morning, which also logged a decline in serious COVID-19 cases.
The Health Ministry said Tuesday that 780 new virus cases were diagnosed a day earlier, continuing a general downward trend following a month-long lockdown. There were 12,733 active cases in Israel and the total number of people diagnosed with the coronavirus since the pandemic began stood at 311,149.
Additionally, the ministry data showed the number of COVID-19 patients in serious condition stayed below 500, having fallen below that threshold on Monday for the first time in about six weeks. There were 467 patients in serious condition, 193 of them on ventilators, and 128 in moderate condition, according to the ministry.
Twelve overnight fatalities took Israel’s total death toll from the virus to 2,452.
The 2.1% positivity rate was seen in the results of 36,605 tests on Monday. The general decline in testing rates over the past several weeks, however, has led to expressions of concern from health officials.
The Hadassah Ein Kerem Medical Center in Jerusalem, the city that has consistently seen the highest number of infections, announced on Tuesday that two departments set up to treat coronavirus patients were to close after over half a year.
“Today is a special day,” tweeted Prof. Dror Mevorach, head of internal medicine at the hospital. “I am closing the two coronavirus wards that were open for around six or seven months. There are fewer than 30 patients in the coronavirus departments and two wards will remain open to treat them. I am pleased to close the departments and also with the constant efforts of the [medical] team that enlisted. I am staying realistic that we may need to reopen them, but in the meantime, we can be a little happy.”
Additionally, the predominantly ultra-Orthodox locality of Bnei Brak announced on Tuesday that low infection rates meant that it was now classified as a “green” city under the Health Ministry’s so-called traffic light system.
“Only 35 new patients have been registered in the city in the last two days. In addition, the rate of positive tests in the city stands at 3%,” the municipality said in a statement.
As Israel’s daily case rate continued to drop a week after a second national lockdown was eased, ministers in the so-called coronavirus cabinet on Monday night approved the reopening of schools for children in first to fourth grade early next week, as well the lifting of a series of other restrictions aimed at containing the pandemic.
Under the plan given the final okay by ministers, children in third and fourth grade will be divided into pods and resume studies five days a week, while those in first and second grade will be split into two groups that will alternate days and go to school only three times a week. Children in fifth grade and above will continue remote learning.
Schools have been closed since September 18, when the nationwide lockdown came into force to drive down infection rates, though preschools and daycares were permitted to reopen last week. The reopening of the school system on September 1 has been partially blamed for a huge spike in virus cases several weeks later that led to the lockdown.
Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch pushed back on Tuesday against claims the government was moving too fast with reopening the education system and economy.
“We are not opening [up] or giving in to pressure. We need to see the downward trend for the next steps [to be taken]. Only on Thursday will we know the impact of reopening the kindergartens. The decision in principle is subject to the situation on Thursday,” Kisch told the Kan public broadcaster. “The Health Ministry opposes the opening of commerce. It will add a lot of meetings. We still have high morbidity.”
In addition to the decision on schools, ministers on Monday also approved the reopening of hairdressing and beauty salons, and other businesses that receive customers, but only one at a time, also starting this coming Sunday. A separate meeting will be held Thursday to decide on reopening other stores and guesthouses.
Monday’s six-hour-long meeting saw ministers spar over a number of the new measures, with Health Minister Yuli Edelstein quoted as saying by Channel 12 that reopening commerce was “playing with fire.”
In a move that caused special tensions between ministers, it was decided that after-school care programs would resume for grades 1-2, but not in accordance with an outline that will see kids divided into separate pods, an apparent contradiction to the school plan.
Nonetheless, and despite the ministerial decision on grades 1-2 only learning three days a week each, Education Minister Yoav Gallant told Channel 12 shortly after the meeting that children in those grades would be at school for more days of the week, at least in certain parts of the country.
“Together with the mayors and school principals, we will open classes for first and second grades for more than three days — in many parts of the country, it will be four days,” he said, without explaining the discrepancy, and adding that “there are places that will also have five days.”
Though schools nationwide have been officially shut due to virus restrictions, hundreds of ultra-Orthodox elementary and high school yeshivas — including in high-infection areas — opened last Sunday in defiance of the law at the order of a senior rabbi, with many ultra-Orthodox officials justifying the move and police only sporadically enforcing the restrictions.
Following the initial coronavirus lockdown in the spring, health officials abandoned their staged plan amid pressure from ministers and opened nearly all schools and businesses at once in early May. That move has been blamed for playing a part in runaway infection rates over the summer that led to the second national lockdown.