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Rate of positive coronavirus tests drops to lowest level in weeks

Initial signs indicate lockdown is starting to flatten the curve, as Health Ministry confirms 4,682 new cases on some 44,700 tests; 46 new deaths recorded in 24 hours

Lab technicians test samples of suspected COVID-19 patients at the Clinical Virology Laboratory of Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital in Jerusalem on September 30, 2020. (GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)
Lab technicians test samples of suspected COVID-19 patients at the Clinical Virology Laboratory of Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital in Jerusalem on September 30, 2020. (GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)

The share of coronavirus tests coming back positive fell to its lowest level in weeks on Tuesday, Health Ministry figures showed Wednesday morning, the latest positive sign that Israel’s efforts to curb runaway infection numbers were bearing fruit.

The Health Ministry on Wednesday morning said that 4,682 new coronavirus cases had been confirmed Tuesday, out of 44,696 tests.

The 10.5 percent positive rate was the lowest rate since September 19, the day after the start of a nationwide lockdown. Israel had seen the percentage rise as high as 15.1% in late September before the trend began to reverse.

Ministry figures on September 19 showed 9.1% of test results had come back positive. For the first three weeks of September, the positivity rate had hovered between 7% and 10% before beginning to spike on September 20.

The positivity rate is seen as a key metric for measuring the spread of the virus, given uneven day-to-day testing numbers. During the first wave of the virus, the country rarely saw a positivity rate of more than 3%, though reporting at the time was intermittent.

The total number of confirmed cases since the start of the pandemic rose to 278,932, including 61,927 active cases — a figure that has also steadily declined in recent days.

Netanyahu said Tuesday there was reason for “cautious optimism” that Israel was on the way out of its raging second virus wave, but said that despite the positive signs, he would not be rushing to lift the nationwide lockdown, which has been in place, with varying levels of restrictions, since September 18.

Despite the positive signs, deaths have continued to rack up, and hospitals are still dealing with over 800 seriously ill patients.

Nine new deaths from the disease since Tuesday night brought the toll since the start of the pandemic to 1,806. Health Ministry figures showed that there had been 46 fatalities between 7 a.m. Tuesday and 7 a.m. Wednesday, among the highest single-day tolls recorded.

According to the ministry, 879 patients were in serious condition, including 240 on ventilators. Another 304 were in moderate condition and the rest had mild or no symptoms.

The number of daily new cases reached an all-time high last week of 9,053 on Wednesday, though testing numbers also spiked. Since then new daily cases have dropped considerably, but testing figures have also remained lower, likely due to the holiday period. Testing numbers often slacken considerably on weekends or holidays.

Israel’s coronavirus czar, Ronni Gamzu, said in a Tuesday afternoon press conference that it was too early to tell if the new figures represented a significant trend.

According to a report by Channel 12 news on Tuesday, the positivity rate in the ultra-Orthodox community is at 23%, several times higher than non-Orthodox areas.

Ronni Gamzu at his office near the central Israeli city of Lod, September 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

An assessment last week found that the rate of infection in the community was 2.5 times that of the national average, and Gamzu said 40% of recent cases were in the ultra-Orthodox community.

Criticism of the ultra-Orthodox community has been growing in recent days, with reports showing that a significant number are disregarding lockdown restrictions during the Sukkot holiday, including by continuing to host mass gatherings.

As police have stepped up enforcement of regulations, there has been increasing anger in the ultra-Orthodox community and accusations of disproportionate force, including against children.

The government late on Tuesday approved a one-week extension of a law that heavily restricts demonstrations and indoor prayers during the ongoing virus lockdown.

The law was approved by the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee last week and went into effect at midnight Thursday.

It was initially set to remain in force until Wednesday, and will now be in place until at least October 13. Officials previously said they were likely to extend the restrictions for at least another week.

Officials say the lockdown is among the only way to keep infection rates in check without a robust contact tracing system in place.

Ministers were told Tuesday night that the number of contact tracers in Israel now stood at 1,300, with each able to carry out an average of two investigations per day, putting the government’s investigatory capacity far below the number of new daily infections, according to Channel 12 news.

A man walks through a closed market amid a nationwide coronavirus lockdown, in Tel Aviv, September 18, 2020. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Health officials have indicated that infection numbers must drop to 2,000 daily cases before the lockdown can be lifted.

The lockdown rules, under a government-declared “special coronavirus emergency,” bar Israelis from traveling more than a kilometer from their homes except for certain essential purposes.

The law also bans indoor prayers at synagogues and visiting others’ sukkahs over the week-long Sukkot holiday, which began on Friday night.

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