Top health official: Virus ‘diminishing,’ but new variants a huge concern

Restrictions on gatherings to begin to ease next Sunday, as venues given access to rapid tests; former virus czar says ‘reckless exit from lockdowns’ caused many needless deaths

Medical technicians test passengers for COVID-19 at the Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv on March 8, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Medical technicians test passengers for COVID-19 at the Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv on March 8, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Israel’s public health chief announced Monday that, with the coronavirus outbreak easing, the Health Ministry is set to reduce restrictions on gatherings, as of this coming Sunday, but concerns remain surrounding new variants entering the country that could prove impervious to the effects of the vaccine.

Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis told reporters in a briefing that “the virus is diminishing. We are on a decline since [the] Purim [holiday], with more than five million vaccinated in Israel with the first dose.”

Alroy-Preis added that “in the next stage [of lifting restrictions], which will begin Sunday, the number of people [allowed to gather] should increase, because we’ll be able to see that the plan is safe.” She did not provide more details.

She also noted that businesses and other venues will have access to rapid virus tests starting Sunday, which will enable them to admit more unvaccinated people.

Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, during a briefing on March 15, 2021. (Screenshot / GPO)

“The issue that scares us the most is the entry of variants,” she told reporters in the briefing. “The British strain rules here with 90 percent [of the cases], but the vaccine is effective against it. We also have the South African strain, which constitutes 1% [of cases], and against which the vaccine is less effective. We’re afraid that additional strains that are unaffected by the vaccine will enter.”

Alroy-Preis said that Ben Gurion Airport is the greatest concern.

At the same time, crediting Israel’s successful vaccination campaign, she said that the virus is “constantly diminishing” and noted that only 15% of Israeli locales are considered either “red” or “orange” in the country’s color-coded scheme for determining the severity of a local outbreak.

Meanwhile, coronavirus czar Nachman Ash said that schools will open nationwide once there are no locales considered “red,” and not before then, in response to a demand by municipalities to allow them to reopen, regardless of how severe their situation is regarding the virus outbreak.

Israel’s coronavirus czar Prof. Nachman Ash, during a visit to the Jerusalem Municipality on November 22, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“We demand that Prof. Nachman Ash and members of the coronavirus cabinet shorten the isolation period for students, eliminate the separate pods in cities with high vaccination rates, and ease restrictions currently on teachers,” Modiin Mayor Haim Bibas, who heads the Federation of Local Authorities, said according to Channel 12 news.

Former virus czar Gabi Barbash said at a conference hosted by the Maariv newspaper that he has “no doubt that the virus could have ended with far fewer” than the 6,000 COVID-19 deaths recorded in Israel, adding that “the reason for the deaths is the reckless exit from the lockdowns.”

Underlining the growing conviction in Israel that the worst of the pandemic is over, Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital announced Monday that it had closed the last of its coronavirus wards, and the remaining 18 patients were transferred into a dedicated section within the general intensive care unit.

Ichilov had opened six coronavirus wards when Israel began its vaccine drive some three months ago, when the outbreak was at its worst. Two of them were intensive care wards.

In Beersheba’s Soroka Medical Center, meanwhile, a mother in her 30s was said to be in serious condition with COVID-19, following the birth of her baby via an emergency C-section.

A medical worker in the coronavirus ward of Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba on September 15, 2020. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Due to the woman’s difficult respiratory condition, the coronavirus intensive care ward decided to perform the surgery in order not to further endanger her and her child. Following the birth, her condition continued to be serious and she was connected to an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) machine, Channel 12 news reported.

Unlike ventilators that just assist breathing, ECMO machines provide cardiac and respiratory assistance by oxygenating a patient’s blood outside of the body and are used for the most critically ill.

Health Ministry data published Monday evening showed that 1,377 new cases were confirmed the previous day. The rate of positive tests stood at 2.4%, continuing the trend of low positivity.

Since the start of the pandemic, 820,789 Israelis have been confirmed to have the coronavirus. They include 26,784 active cases, of whom 603 are in serious condition — the lowest figure recorded since December 26. They also include 262 patients regarded as critical.

An Israeli woman receives a Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a Clalit medical center in Dimona, Southern Israel, February 21, 2021. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

The total number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients dropped below 1,000 to 958.

The death toll rose to 6,029 following 21 deaths Sunday, with another 8 reported by Monday evening.

According to ministry data, 5,186,949 Israelis — some 55% of the total population — have received the first vaccine dose, of whom 4,250,135 (45%) have also received the second.

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