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'Right to open schools,' but not soccer 'packed with 20,000'

Top health officials urge curbs on large gatherings as COVID-19 spread continues

Virus czar says soccer matches and other major events not suitable given number of seriously ill patients in hospitals; Health Ministry chief warns ECMO teams at their limits

Coronavirus czar Prof. Salman Zarka attends a press conference about the coronavirus, in Jerusalem, on August 29, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Coronavirus czar Prof. Salman Zarka attends a press conference about the coronavirus, in Jerusalem, on August 29, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Senior health officials on Thursday called to limit public gatherings in order to drive down COVID-19 infection rates that have seen the number of seriously ill remain stubbornly high despite an ongoing vaccination campaign.

National coronavirus czar Salman Zarka and Health Ministry Director-General Nachman Ash both urged further restrictions as they warned that unvaccinated, seriously ill patients are overloading the medical care system.

Their remarks came as the Health Ministry reported that there were nearly 6,000 new COVID-19 cases diagnosed the day before, and as the country prepares for the return to school of millions of students after the Sukkot holiday, which ends next week.

“The situation of gatherings requires rethinking,” Zarka told Army Radio. “There are priorities, it is right to open the schools, to send students back to studies, but very full soccer pitches and events are not suitable in light of the state of morbidity in the hospitals.”

“A soccer match packed with 20,000 people is not suitable,” he added.

“The health system is very strained and very pressured,” Zarka said, noting that hospitals must also deal with regular patients, in addition to those who have COVID-19. Most of those who are seriously ill have not had all three recommended vaccine shots, he said.

“The story of this outbreak is the story of those who choose to not be vaccinated,” Zarka said.

Health Ministry chief Ash offered similar views, while calling for the cabinet to convene and discuss the situation. The so-called coronavirus cabinet, a panel of ministers tasked with forming virus policy, has not met for several days.

He urged a cabinet meeting to deliberate on reducing the size of public gatherings.

“I would reduce large gatherings, including in soccer pitches, so that in an enclosed space there not be more than 400 people and in an open area, [not more than] 500,” he said.

Under current health orders, private gatherings are capped at 100 people outdoors and 50 people indoors, while at event venues, the cap is 500 outdoors and 400 indoors. Additionally, no event can surpass 75 percent of a venue’s full capacity. Mass events where there are no marked seats are capped at 1,000 people indoors and 5,000 people outdoors.

Ash said that the ministry is in daily contact with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and that when there are matters raised requiring cabinet attention, they are brought to a meeting.

“In recent days there were a few things that came up to inquiry at the cabinet, but so far, there was no gathering,” he said.

A meeting is needed in light of the ongoing holiday period and the approaching return of children to schools, Ash said, but he refrained from criticizing the government on the matter.

“I don’t think that [the government] is ignoring the situation, there are many steps that are being taken, But there is a clear statement from the government that they want the economy to remain open, that students learn as much as possible frontally [in classrooms],” he said.

Health Minister Director-General Nachman Ash attends a press conference about the coronavirus, in Jerusalem, on August 29, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Ash noted that there has not been a drop in the number of seriously ill patients, and that most of those who are in serious condition are not fully vaccinated.

Unvaccinated people are “burdening the hospitals,” Ash said. “Their illness is more severe, we see this quite clearly in this wave.”

He warned there is a shortage of manpower needed to operate all the ECMO machines for treating serious cases.

Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) machines do the work of a person’s heart and lungs in order to allow them to recover from serious respiratory illness. Unlike ventilators that just assist breathing, ECMOs provide cardiac and respiratory assistance by oxygenating a patient’s blood outside of the body and are used only for the most critically ill.

A Channel 12 news report on Wednesday said that a 53-year-old man died earlier this week after suffering a heart attack because there were no available ECMO machines in the country to treat him, with most of them being used by unvaccinated COVID-19 patients experiencing serious illness.

“The trouble is mainly in medical teams, teams for intensive care,” Ash said. “There is a limit to how many teams there are, we are at the limit.”

Though all patients are being accommodated, “if the numbers go up we will need to make difficult decisions,” he said. “We don’t want to get to that. So it is important to vaccinate.”

Hospital staff in the coronavirus ward of Ziv Medical Center in the northern city of Safed, on September 22, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Health Ministry figures released on Thursday showed that there were 723 people in a serious condition, of which 253 are in critical condition. The number of seriously ill, considered an indicator of the severity of the virus outbreak, has remained around 650-750 for over a month.

On Wednesay, 5,921 new COVID-19 cases were diagnosed, the ministry figures showed. Since the start of the virus outbreak last year, 1,250,200 people in Israel have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and 7,592 have died of the disease.

Under the national vaccination drive, 6,077,087 people have received at least one shot, of which 5,599,982 have had two, and 3,128,158 people have received all three doses.

On Wednesday, Ash visited the Ziv Medical Center in the northern city of Safed, where he warned that “we need to prepare for a not-so-simple period in the shadow of the coronavirus.”

He said that the Health Ministry will lobby the Finance Ministry on budgeting issues.

Bennett clashed with health officials on Wednesday over COVID rules for the reopening of schools after the holiday period.

Bennett reportedly wants to reduce the number of students in quarantine, and instead prefers to have kids that were exposed to virus carriers remain in school, while undergoing testing for a week to ensure that they did not contract COVID-19, and quarantining in the case of a positive test.

Currently, all children exposed to the virus in their classes must self-isolate for a week and undergo a PCR test. Hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren have been sent into isolation since the start of the school year on September 1.

But health officials are reportedly demanding the more strict quarantine rules remain in force to curb potential outbreaks.

Starting on October 3, anyone who has not received a booster shot six months after getting a second vaccine dose will have their Green Pass revoked, denying them entry to certain venues and events that require proof of vaccination, recovery from COVID-19 or a negative test result.

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