Task force says pandemic on rise again, warns of new worrisome New York variant

Team suggests reassessing plans to further ease restrictions; new mutation on rise in NYC shares characteristics with South African strain, may curb vaccine effectiveness

People dressed up in costumes attend a festival at the Tel Aviv Port to mark the Jewish holiday of Purim on February 25, 2021 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
People dressed up in costumes attend a festival at the Tel Aviv Port to mark the Jewish holiday of Purim on February 25, 2021 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Following the opening of much of the economy this week, the trend of declining infection rates has been halted, and certain indicators are once again trending upwards, a military-led coronavirus task force said Friday.

Citing the data, the Coronavirus National Information and Knowledge Center, operating under Military Intelligence and the Health Ministry, recommended reassessing whether to continue plans to further ease restrictions in early March.

The task force also expressed concern at the emergence of a new variant in New York City in recent days — one that appears to share characteristics of the South African strain that enable it to evade some of the body’s immune response, and that could potentially weaken the effectiveness of current vaccines.

Given close ties between the countries and ongoing flights between Tel Aviv and New York, the task force warned there was a real risk of the variant taking hold in Israel.

Though Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport is currently under general closure until at least March 6, so-called rescue flights are still taking place for Israelis stranded abroad and special authorized cases. Flights from New York are arriving several times a week.

A volunteer of Ezer Mizion reads Megillat Esther (the Story of Esther) to staff members and patients at a coronavirus department at the Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem during the Jewish holiday of Purim, February 25, 2021 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

In its latest report, the body said Israel’s coronavirus transmission rate was once again nearing 1, now standing at 0.97. The rate had dipped to a low of 0.8 earlier this month.

The basic reproduction number, or R-number, is the number of new cases stemming from each coronavirus infection, or the number of people who caught the virus from each infected person. Any number lower than 1 means the pandemic is slowing down, while a number above 1 means it is expanding.

The task force said it expected rising infection numbers in the coming days.

The report cited the prevalence of the British variant of the virus as the probable cause for the pandemic’s fortitude. The more contagious mutation that was first identified in the UK has become the dominant form in Israel.

On Thursday Clalit Health Services, Israel’s largest HMO, issued a report saying the variant was the likely cause of a 70 percent rise last month in serious COVID-19 cases among unvaccinated Israelis. The task force, too, said its data indicated that the variant causes 60%-70% more cases requiring hospitalization.

Health Ministry officials have also warned that the rising transmission rate may delay a further easing of restrictions. Tomer Lotan, a senior official in the Health Ministry, told the Ynet news site that “all options are on the table.

“Next week we’ll have an assessment, with the options being continuing [easing restrictions] as planned or slamming the breaks.”

Israel this week eased many of its lockdown restrictions, opening stores and more schools, as well as recreational facilities for those vaccinated. As of Wednesday, one-third of the population was fully vaccinated and half had received at least one dose. The coronavirus infection rate, however, remained high, at over 4,000 cases a day.

If certain vaccination and morbidity targets are hit by March 9, the next step would be further opening schools, as well as a limited opening of restaurants and cafes for sit-in customers.

Costumed people shop at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on February 25, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On Thursday the head of public health in the Health Ministry, Sharon Alroy-Preis, distanced herself from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to reopen the economy by April, after vaccinating all Israelis over 16 by the end of March.

Netanyahu on Wednesday specified five stages for “exiting from the coronavirus”: first, getting safely through the Purim period; second, in the second week of March, gradually opening the education system further; third, also in the second week of March, widening the Green Pass system allowing increased activities for the vaccinated; fourth, vaccinating all Israelis over 16 by the end of March; and thus, fifth, reaching “a full opening” of the country in April — shortly after the March 23 elections. He didn’t elaborate on what a full reopening would entail.

A granddaughter (R) wearing safety gear takes care of her grandmother at the coronavirus department at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, during the Jewish holiday of Purim, February 25, 2021 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Alroy-Preis, however, said she could not sign off on the plan as presented by the prime minister. “I can’t sign off on reopening in a fortnight, or a month. It all depends on the contagion,” she told Army Radio. “I only sign off on things I know, [and] I don’t know what [the situation] will be in a month,”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein (R) at a press conference in Ramat Gan on February 24, 2021. (Amos Ben Gershon/GPO)

“I look with worry at the reproduction number that is rising, and at the number of severely ill patients that is declining very slowly,” she said.

The government is imposing a nightly curfew on Israelis on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, in order to stymie large parties during the Purim holiday period. According to tradition, walled cities celebrate the Purim holiday a day later than the rest, and Jerusalem is among that group. Thus, some level of Purim-related government restrictions were expected on Sunday evening as well.

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