Daily confirmed coronavirus cases grew to a record 5,523 on Tuesday, as the number of tests saw a parallel surge.
The Health Ministry said Wednesday morning that 166,794 people have been diagnosed with COVID-19 since the pandemic began, including 42,862 active cases — a number that has been sharply rising for the past few weeks.
Of them, 535 were in serious condition, including 138 on ventilators. Another 213 were in moderate condition and the rest had mild or no symptoms.
The ministry said 55,734 test results came back on Tuesday — a new record — of which 9.9 percent were positive, around the same as in previous days.
The death toll remained at 1,147.
The government decided Wednesday morning to close the education system starting Thursday, a day before a nationwide lockdown kicks in, due to the rise in infections. Ministers held a vote on the matter by phone.
That means elementary, middle and high schools, kindergartens and daycares will be closed. Special education and other exceptional cases will continue operating.
The Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement that ministers had accepted the recommendation of the Health Ministry and coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu to close the schools earlier than Friday.
On Sunday, the cabinet had voted to allow schools to remain open through Friday, with a nationwide lockdown set to go into effect at 2 p.m. that day.
But on Tuesday, Gamzu wrote a sharply worded letter to Education Minister Yoav Gallant and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein strongly advising them to shut schools immediately.
“The government made the wrong decision that is contrary to our professional recommendation,” he wrote.
Gallant has vowed to keep schools open and insisted that they not be forced to shut until the lockdown goes into effect, despite concern from officials that they may serve as a major vector for the virus.
The country has seen virus transmission spike in recent weeks, with thousands of cases traced back to schools since they opened on September 1.
The swift reopening of schools in May, after the first lockdown, was among the major factors blamed for the swift reversal of Israel’s initial success in fighting off the pandemic during the first wave of the virus.
Officials say that while younger children pose a smaller risk of catching the virus or infecting others, those 10 and above appear to not have those same protections.
The virus is also surging in other countries, causing the Health Ministry to remove several countries from the list of “green” countries with low infections, from which entry to Israel is allowed without the need to quarantine.
Those countries are Croatia, Hungary, Austria and Slovenia. Effective next Tuesday, any Israeli returning from those countries will be required to isolate for 14 days.
The ministry also put some new countries on the list of “green” countries: Seychelles, Iceland, Cuba and Serbia.
The rest of the “green” countries are Italy, Estonia, Bulgaria, Britain, Georgia, Germany, Denmark, Hong Kong, Greece, Jordan, Latvia, Lithuania, New Zealand, Finland, Canada, Cyprus, Rwanda, Australia, Uruguay, the United Arab Emirates, Ireland, Taiwan, Norway, Singapore, Portugal and Thailand.
The cabinet voted to place Israel under nationwide lockdown for three weeks starting Friday. Much of the period will overlap with the High Holidays and Sukkot, when schools would be shut anyway.