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26 more coronavirus cases confirmed, bringing Israel’s total to 324

Five patients in serious condition, 299 have light symptoms; 11 people have recovered from COVID-19; sixth member of the armed forces diagnosed

People pray in enclosed areas allowing prayers of 10 people in a time, at the Western Wall, in the Old City of Jerusalem, March 15, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
People pray in enclosed areas allowing prayers of 10 people in a time, at the Western Wall, in the Old City of Jerusalem, March 15, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Health Ministry on Tuesday reported 26 more confirmed cases of the new coronoavirus since the previous evening, bringing the country’s total to 324.

According to the ministry, five people are currently in serious condition with COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, while another nine are moderately ill. Eleven patients have recovered.

The vast majority of the confirmed carriers of the virus – 299 — are displaying only light symptoms.

Patients are being treated in hospitals throughout the country, though 43 of those infected, all with light symptoms, are being treated in their homes, and 23 are en route to hospitals.

One of those diagnosed with the disease is a 19-year-old female soldier from northern Israel, the army said in a statement, the sixth service member to be infected.

The military said she has been hospitalized with light symptoms.

“The Medical Corps, with the Health Ministry, is conducting an epidemiological investigation, whose findings will be published soon,” the Israel Defense Forces said. “Those who were in close contact with her have been notified and additional people who were in contact with her are being located now.”

As of Tuesday morning, 4,267 soldiers and civilian employees of the IDF are in quarantine.

In an effort to curb the spread of the virus, the government has been announcing increasingly strict measures since the weekend that have essentially shut down large parts of the economy, urging Israelis to remain at home as much as possible. Only essential services like supermarkets and clinics are supposed to remain open, and workplaces have been scaled back, with many either put on leave or ordered to work from home.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a press conference at the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem on March 16, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a series of steps that would see most workers in the public and private sectors placed on leave, but stopped short of calling for a nationwide lockdown, which the Health Ministry had sought.

“We aren’t locking people in their homes. We aren’t announcing a full lockdown — and I hope we won’t get to it,” said the prime minister, adding that “we will impose local lockdowns in places where there is an outbreak.”

The public sector will reduce its workers by up to 80 percent, with the numbers varying by office, said Netanyahu. Government employees will be placed on leave at the expense of vacation days until after Passover.

Private businesses will be forced to reduce their in-office staff by 70% beginning Wednesday, he said, sending the employees to work from home or placed on leave. This does not apply to businesses with 10 workers or less.

Cabinet ministers also approved the use of advanced digital monitoring tools to track carriers of the coronavirus in Israel for the next 30 days.

Such tracking technologies, which in large part rely on data from cellphones, have principally been used by the Shin Bet security service in counterterrorism operations, and have raised major privacy concerns.

By designating the move an “emergency measure,” Netanyahu was able to bypass the Knesset’s subcommittee on clandestine services, which on Monday refrained from approving a government request to approve the surveillance.

Medical workers wear protective suits as a preventive measure against the coronavirus, as they arrive to test a patient with symptoms, Jerusalem, March 16, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

The technology will be used to trace the recent movements of those diagnosed with the disease so that authorities can identify anyone who was in the same areas as them and then send out notifications to self-quarantine as a precaution.

The measure has faced criticism from human rights and privacy experts as effectively it means any person in Israel could come under surveillance by the Shin Bet, an organization with no public transparency requirements. The proposal also goes far beyond the monitoring efforts used by other countries in their fights against the coronavirus. The Shin Bet agency said it would not be used to crack down violators of quarantine.

Israel has also banned gatherings of over 10 people, closed schools, forced all Israelis entering the country into a 14-day quarantine, and ordered the closure of all malls, restaurants and cafes (with takeout permitted) to contain the outbreak.

Tens of thousands of Israelis are currently in self-quarantine including thousands of medical workers, at least 19 of whom have caught the disease.

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