The number of coronavirus patients in serious condition topped 1,000 on Sunday, the first time hospitals in Israel held that many since the start of the pandemic.
As the third wave of the pandemic continues to take a heavy toll on the country, the Health Ministry reported a record 1,029 serious cases, an increase of 36 in the previous 24 hours and nearly 300 in a week.
According to figures released by the ministry, 5,047 new coronavirus cases were recorded over Saturday, bringing the total number of infections confirmed in Israel since the pandemic began to 487,680.
The relatively low number of new cases compared to figures from late last week — on Friday 7,080 were recorded — is due to a significantly reduced number of tests carried out on Saturday, with just over 80,000 conducted compared to nearly 120,000 on Friday. A total of 6.3 percent of tests came back positive, the ministry said.
There were 68,933 active cases. Of the 1,029 serious cases, 240 people were on ventilators. Another 308 were in moderate condition and the rest had mild or no symptoms.
On Saturday, the Health Ministry said that four cases of the highly contagious South African coronavirus strain had been identified in Israel, the first time the mutated variant had been discovered in the country. A British strain that is also particularly contagious is already believed to be prevalent in the Israeli population
The Health Ministry has emphasized that like the British variant, there is no evidence the South African variant causes more severe illness, even though it is more contagious.
With health officials warning that this wave of the pandemic would be worse than the previous two, Israel on Friday entered a strict lockdown, closing all schools and nonessential businesses and instructing the public not to venture out of home unless for essential needs.
The two previous weeks had seen a loosely enforced lockdown with schools largely functioning; Sunday will be the first real test of the new restrictions.
The rise in coronavirus cases comes as Israel pushes ahead with its vaccination campaign, starting to administer second doses of Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine to the public Sunday, precisely three weeks after it began its national inoculation drive.
Welcoming the start of the new stage in the campaign, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said that 1,817,000 people had been vaccinated in Israel so far, out of a population of 9.29 million. The number is by far the highest vaccination rate in the world.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu became the first Israeli to get the second dose of the vaccine Saturday, just as he inaugurated the first dose, and declared that all Israelis could be fully immunized within two months.
Speaking Sunday morning to the Kan public broadcaster, Sharon Alroy-Preis, the Health Ministry’s acting head of public health, said the impact of the vaccination drive will be felt soon.
“I hope that within ten days we will begin to see a downward trend in morbidity and mortality. It is difficult to assess how much the vaccines have an effect,” she said.
A new deal with Pfizer will see hundreds of thousands of new doses land in Israel Sunday, with planned weekly shipments of similar size expected to deliver another million doses to the country by the end of the month, and 10 million doses expected by March.
The next shipment to Israel had originally been set to arrive only in February, and authorities had in recent days wound down first-dose vaccinations due to an expected shortage, to allow all those awaiting second shots to get them on time, 21 days after the first.
But Netanyahu announced Thursday that Pfizer had agreed to send millions of additional doses to Israel, which will serve as a “model country” for the pharmaceutical giant, offering statistical data on the vaccine’s effectiveness.
Health officials now expect to restart first-dose shots on Wednesday, Channel 12 reported. They hope to start vaccinating teaching staff within days, and to move on to all Israelis over 50 very soon. The report said officials believe that if vaccine shipments arrive as planned, vaccination will be opened for the entire population within two or three weeks.