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Police preparing to crack down on thousands of illegal New Year’s gatherings

Officers to deploy drones and helicopters to locate parties that are barred under virus lockdown rules; Health Ministry frets about restrictions’ efficacy amid high infection rate

Police at a temporary checkpoint during Israel's third coronavirus lockdown, Jerusalem, December 29, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Police at a temporary checkpoint during Israel's third coronavirus lockdown, Jerusalem, December 29, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Police are preparing to break up thousands of illegal New Year’s gatherings on Thursday as health authorities fret about rising infection numbers amid Israel’s third nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Some 2,000 police officers will deploy around the country on Thursday night to enforce virus lockdown restrictions against travel and gatherings, according to Hebrew media reports.

Law enforcement is expecting to break up house parties, “nature” parties held in open areas outdoors, gatherings at vacation homes that were rented for the holiday and crowds near stores that sell alcohol.

Police will use helicopters and drones to locate prohibited gatherings, and set up checkpoints on roads to enforce restrictions on movement and check for drunk drivers.

Officers have mapped out areas to patrol based on information from intelligence sources and indications on social media.

Lockdown rules that went into effect Sunday bar most movement and recreational activities.

The Jewish New Year on Rosh Hashanah, in the fall, is a major holiday in Israel and January 1 celebrations are typically more muted than in Western countries.

Border Police patrol in downtown Jerusalem during Israel’s third coronavirus lockdown, December 29, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Channel 12 said Wednesday the Health Ministry believes the lockdown is likely ineffective and plans to hold a reassessment on the restrictions in the middle of next week.

Health authorities believe there is too much movement and traffic several days into the new lockdown, and fear the high morbidity will outpace the efficacy of vaccinations.

Health officials fear the third-wave outbreak could peak with 8,000 new infections per day, the report said. Monday and Tuesday saw new cases spike to over 5,000, the highest daily tally in months.

The coronavirus cabinet said the lockdown will continue until new daily infections fall to under 1,000 per day. The Health Ministry believes it will take weeks to reach that goal and is therefore weighing other criteria for lifting restrictions, said the unsourced Channel 12 report.

The report said health authorities are alarmed by the high infection numbers despite the lockdown, but infections and other indications of virus spread are lagging indicators and will likely only begin to decline after several more days of restrictions. The effects of vaccinations will also only become evident in the coming days, since an initial dose provides partial protection from the virus around 10 days after it was administered.

Jaffa Street in downtown Jerusalem during Israel’s third coronavirus lockdown, December 29, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel entered the new lockdown, its third since the start of the pandemic, at 5 p.m. on Sunday evening. Although set for a two-week period with an option to extend, health officials have already warned it will likely go on for a month.

The current lockdown rules bar Israelis from entering another person’s home; restrict movement to one kilometer (six-tenths of a mile) from home, with exceptions, such as for vaccinations; shut down commerce (except for essentials), leisure and entertainment; limit public transportation to 50% capacity; and limit workplaces that do not deal with customers face-to-face to 50% capacity. Most schools remain open.

Israel’s vaccination campaign is underway and has buoyed hopes despite the dire case numbers. The Health Ministry said that 152,000 coronavirus vaccines were administered on Tuesday, exceeding for the first time the goal of administering at least 150,000 a day. Vaccination data for Wednesday was not yet available.

Around 30% of Israelis over 60 have received their first vaccine dose, according to Health Ministry data cited by the Ynet news site.

Israel leads the world in per capita vaccinations with 7.44% of the population vaccinated.

Tampering expectations, a Wednesday report said that Israel may need to semi-freeze its vaccination campaign for two weeks in January, as it may run out of injections otherwise.

COVID-19 vaccines are administered at the Kaplan Medical Center in Rehovot, December 29, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Unless a deal is agreed upon under which Pfizer vaccine supplies due in February arrive ahead of schedule, current stocks will run out in about 10 days at the current pace of inoculation. The pause would allow those who’ve received the first dose to get the second dose, but new first doses would not be given, according to the report.

Health providers are administering Israelis shots from Pfizer, which require two doses spaced several weeks apart, so the numbers so far represent people who still need a follow-up shot.

Israel began its vaccination drive on December 20, focusing on healthcare workers, over 60s and some at-risk groups.

Teachers are also to be prioritized for vaccination from the start of next week, with some locations beginning Thursday.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said Israel is aiming for some 2.25 million Israelis out of a population of 9.2 million to be vaccinated by the end of January.

On Wednesday, the Health Ministry said 5,594 new coronavirus infections were confirmed the day before, the highest number of new COVID-19 cases since early October when Israel was in its second national lockdown.

There have been 416,584 infections since the start of the pandemic and there are 40,993 active cases. There are 622 patients in serious condition, including 162 on ventilators, and 3,307 Israelis have died.

On Tuesday, 99,289 tests were carried out resulting in a positivity rate of 5.7% percent.

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