Tightened lockdown rules take effect as official warns ‘pandemic is raging’

Police deploy across Israel to enforce new restrictions; Health Ministry figures suggest slight slowdown in spread of virus

Illustrative: Police at a temporary checkpoint enforce lockdown restrictions, Jerusalem, December 29, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Illustrative: Police at a temporary checkpoint enforce lockdown restrictions, Jerusalem, December 29, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Israel entered a tightened lockdown to curb a raging COVID-19 outbreak at midnight Thursday-Friday, with a top Health Ministry official already signaling the restrictions could remain in force longer than two weeks.

Many Israelis stocked up on groceries ahead of the lockdown and police were deployed in large numbers to enforce the restrictions, which were approved late Wednesday by ministers as infection rates surged in Israel. The new rules see schools closed and most commerce restricted, with tighter limitations on gatherings.

The measures will be in effect until January 21, though the Health Ministry’s acting head of public health warned it could “very well” be longer before they are eased.

“The [case] numbers are doubling every two weeks,” Sharon Alroy-Preis told the Knesset’s Justice, Law and Constitution Committee, which approved the lockdown Thursday evening. “The pandemic is raging.”

She said the rise in COVID-19 patients hospitalized in serious condition was particularly worrying.

“The forecast of the seriously ill has gotten worse than what we expected and we’re in a catastrophe,” she said.

Health workers at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem move patients to the new coronavirus ward at the hospital on January 7, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

In updated figures published Thursday night, the Health Ministry said another 5,441 cases were confirmed since midnight, bringing the number of infections since the pandemic began to 471,048.

The death toll stood at 3,552.

The number of active cases rose to 64,583, with 878 people in serious condition, including 229 on ventilators. Another 261 Israelis were in moderate condition and the rest had mild or no symptoms.

According to the Health Ministry, 75,212 tests had been performed as of  Thursday evening, with six percent coming back positive.

The ministry said 7,855 new cases were confirmed Wednesday and 6.2% of cases returned positive, continuing a slight downward trend in daily infections and the test positivity rate, both of which peaked on Monday.

The tightened lockdown took effect as Israel pushed on with its vaccination campaign. Some 1,593,000 people have now been vaccinated in Israel, but the healthcare system was facing a shortage of doses that temporarily forced health providers to slow the pace of new inoculations.

However, the first batch of vaccines from Moderna arrived earlier Thursday and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a “breakthrough” in talks with Pfizer, asserting Israel would receive enough vaccines to inoculate all Israelis over the age of 16 by the end of March.

“Victory is in sight,” he asserted.

He said the next shipment from Pfizer would arrive on Sunday, but didn’t specify the number of doses. Channel 12 news reported Thursday evening that a further 1 million doses were en route to the country.

Briefly noting the tightened lockdown measures, Netanyahu urged all Israelis to adhere to the rules.

A man receives a COVID-19 vaccine in Jerusalem, on January 6, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Along with closing schools and nonessential businesses, the new rules require all travelers returning from South Africa, where a new strain of the virus have been spreading, as well as neighboring Botswana, Zambia and Lesotho, to enter state-run hotels for their quarantine period. Returnees from all other countries will undergo virus tests at the airport before entering mandatory isolation at home.

Checkpoints were set up on major highways and within towns and cities. The previous rules — which were largely been ignored and under-enforced — already limited Israelis from venturing beyond a kilometer from their homes, except for essential reasons.

Coronavirus czar Nachman Ash, who is spearheading the national effort, said on Thursday, “This time we must ensure that all places in all sectors are closed. The outbreak in the ultra-Orthodox community is more significant. Full enforcement cannot be waived.”

At least two mass weddings were held in ultra-Orthodox communities on Tuesday despite the high infection rates. Consequently, several police officers were suspended while an inquiry was to be held over why one celebration, in the Beitar Illit settlement, was allowed to proceed.

Anonymous police officials told the Haaretz daily that officers wouldn’t take action against Haredi schools that remain open in violation of the lockdown.

Meanwhile, one of the most influential spiritual leaders of the ultra-Orthodox community urged his followers to heed the government lockdown regulations and the instructions from the medical establishment. On Thursday, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky said Haredi schools would close for “several days” during the lockdown.

Kanievsky has in the past ordered ultra-Orthodox schools to remain open as lockdown measures were in force.

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