Top Health Ministry official tells Knesset: Second coronavirus wave already here

Prof. Sigal Sadetzky warns COVID-19 spreading across the country, confounding ability to identify at-risk groups

Jerusalemites wearing face masks on June 11, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Jerusalemites wearing face masks on June 11, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The head of health services at the Health Ministry told Knesset lawmakers on Sunday that Israel is seeing the start of a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic.

Prof. Sigal Sadetzky’s remarks came as a recent spike in cases continued, with dozens of new patients confirmed to have the virus overnight, after nearly 200 were diagnosed the day before. The government has warned that if the public does not adhere to social distancing and hygiene orders, it may have to reapply some lockdown measures.

“We are experiencing the beginning of a second wave,” Sadetzky told the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee that convened to discuss extending emergency measures regarding court hearings for prisoners and those under arrest, according to Hebrew media.

“We had a long period of more than two weeks with a calm of less than 20 infections a day, and it started to climb and climb, and now we are seeing close to 200 new sick people a day,” Sadetzky said.

“What characterizes the wave we are seeing now is that it’s across the country, we don’t really know how to identify at-risk groups,” she said.

Rather than being in a localized hotspots, “we see it running all around and spreading over a very wide geographical area,” she added.

Prof. Sigal Sadetzky, head of health services at the Health Ministry, speaks during a press conference about the coronavirus, at the Health Ministry in Jerusalem on May 31, 2020. (Flash90)

Sadetzky warned that the close confines of prison means it will be very difficult to contain an outbreak if there is one. Courts were also ordered under lockdown, and prisoners and those under arrest were forced to participate in hearings on their cases via video-link, due to the emergency orders that are up for extension.

“Just as we want to protect care homes and those hospitalized, so we also want to protect prisoners,” she said.

Much of the resurgence of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, has been blamed on the education system, which has seen hundreds of cases in schools and kindergartens. The entire education system was shuttered for two months during a lockdown that began in mid-March.

Although the Health Ministry had wanted to allow only a partial return to schools last month, the Education Ministry sought a full reopening, freeing up parents to return to work, rather than stay at home taking care of children.

Sadetzky admitted that the Health Ministry was hoping for the best when it allowed schools to reopen despite the risks.

“We compromised a bit on the education system because we very much wanted to believe that it would pass, even if we are cutting corners, but with this virus you can’t negotiate,” she said.

Since the education system reopened to full operation, 200 schools have seen virus cases, putting tens of thousands of students and staff into quarantine, she said.

“We are at a point when it is very difficult to go back and there is a balance of interests that I respect,” Sadetzky said.

However, outgoing Health Ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman-Tov told Kan that he believes Israel could overcome the current COVID-19 resurgence without reimposing a nationwide lockdown.

“We can still be relatively optimistic and flatten the curve without a lockdown,” he said earlier on Sunday. “We need to keep the guidelines, especially regarding masks. There was an issue with keeping people aware that the coronavirus was not a one-off that came and went. We need to convince the public of how important it is. I think the public, and everybody, was quite tired.”

Moshe Bar Siman-Tov, director-general of the Health Ministry, at a press conference about the coronavirus, at the Health Ministry in Jerusalem on May 31, 2020. (Flash90)

Sunday marked Bar Siman-Tov’s last day on the job, after Prof. Chezy Levy was confirmed as his replacement earlier in the day.

The Health Ministry said that, so far, 19,008 people have been diagnosed with the disease since the outbreak began, up 36 from the night before. Of those, 15,360 have recovered and 300 have died. Israel saw 177 new cases on Saturday, and 226 on Friday, the second day in a row that the figure was over 200 new infections. The first 10 days in June saw more infections than the entire month of May.

A total of 183 schools and daycare centers have been shut down due to infections out of 5,200 schools and 20,000 kindergartens in the country, according to Health Ministry figures. Last week, 15 schools that had been shuttered due to recent virus cases among pupils or staff reopened and another 46 are expected to reopen this week, Ynet reported.

In light of the rise in cases, the government has ordered police to increase enforcement of social distancing rules, with more fines being handed out to individuals for not wearing masks and to businesses failing to adhere to Health Ministry guidelines.

Netanyahu warned Thursday that sweeping measures meant to contain the virus could be reimposed if the recent spike in new cases continues.

Despite his warning, the government on Friday approved the holding of certain events of up to 250 people starting Sunday. These include weddings and religious ceremonies, such as circumcisions and bar and bat mitzvahs. Other events are still capped at 50 participants, and have to take place in an open area, a joint statement from Netanyahu’s office and the Health Ministry said.

The decision has led many event halls to announce they will reopen, with necessary hygiene guidelines.

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