Strict new rules prohibiting most Israelis from leaving home in a bid to stem the coronavirus outbreak went into effect Sunday morning, with a top official saying it would take over a week before it became clear if the measures were having the intended effect.
Meanwhile, authorities were predicting a large jump in the number of cases Sunday as testing ramped up, amid a row over the pace of the scans and stinging accusations between the Health and Defense ministries over how the crisis is being managed.
Ministers late Saturday night updated emergency regulations, which came into effect on Sunday at 8 a.m. for the next seven days, aimed at keeping Israelis at home and to be enforced by police.
The head of the coronavirus treatment team at the Health Ministry said Sunday that if people abide by the directives and stay home, Israel will start to see the results in approximately 10 days.
“Self-isolation is very helpful and we will see the results in around ten days. Hopefully the self-isolation will flatten the curve significantly,” Dr. Boaz Lev told the Kan public broadcaster, referring to the protocol which tries to prevent a surge in the number of people requiring hospitalization at the same time.
As of Sunday morning there were 945 people diagnosed with coronavirus in Israel. The Health Ministry said 20 people were in serious condition, two days after an 88-year-old man became the country’s first fatality in the global pandemic. The ministry also said 24 people were listed in moderate condition and that the rest had mild symptoms.
According to the new rules, which the government has vowed to enforce, Israelis must remain at home, with exceptions made for buying essential food and medical supplies or seeking medical treatment. Other exceptions include attending demonstrations, aiding an elderly or ill person, blood donations, attending court hearings, seeking aid from welfare services, going to the Knesset, and attending religious services, including weddings and funerals (which must have no more than 10 people present) or visiting a ritual bath (mikvah).
Israelis were permitted exercise outdoors, with no more than two people together, and venture out for short walks near their homes. The ban also limited the number of people who could drive in a car to two, unless they were members of the same household (this does not apply to “essential” errands, carpools of essential workers to and from work, and delivery services).
The penalties for violating the orders were not stated. According to Channel 13, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had voiced support for fining citizens who breach the rules, but Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit warned such a step would be “very problematic.”
“If people aren’t disciplined, we will do it,” the network quoted Netanyahu as saying.
Throughout Saturday the Health Ministry urged the public to stay indoors even if the weather is warm, amid reports that many Israelis had ventured outside, flouting directives. Videos showed police dispersing people in crowded locations such as Yarkon Park and the Tel Aviv promenade.
A police official told the Walla news site that officers would begin intensifying their enforcement against violators of Health Ministry guidelines. In the coming days, “there will be even more police on the streets dealing with crowds and penalizing businesses violating the guidelines,” the official said.
Health Ministry deputy director-general Itamar Grotto told Channel 12 news Saturday, “People will have to be in lockdown for an extended period of time. It’s not a matter of a day or two. We’re talking about at least two weeks as a first stage, and it could mean several months in the second stage.”
He added that infections throughout the country could yet reach 30-60 percent, “with the vast majority unaware that they are ill.”
A Health Ministry official told Channel 12 news Saturday night that the total number of Israelis found to have the virus could rise by some 300 new cases in a single day, crossing the 1,000-patient mark and then some.
It was not immediately clear when the next Health Ministry update on the number of ill would by publicized.
Israel confirmed its first death from the virus over the weekend. Aryeh Even, 88, was a resident of a senior home in Jerusalem and Holocaust survivor. Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center said he had been admitted in very serious condition with multiple preexisting conditions. Despite intensive treatment, including resuscitation from heart failure, his state deteriorated rapidly and he died, the hospital said.
Channel 12 reported that while the latest update on Saturday morning had seen 178 new coronavirus cases, this figure was believed to be affected by the fact that testing had slowed during Shabbat, with many laboratories closed for the weekend.
The unnamed official said it was “a scandal” that labs were working at reduced capacity during the weekend during an unprecedented national emergency.
The head of the Israel Association of Biochemists, Microbiologists and Laboratory Workers on Friday accused the Health Ministry of not allowing medical laboratories around Israel to operate at full capacity during Shabbat, limiting the number of coronavirus tests they could perform. The Health Ministry denied the claim, saying the labs were operating 24/7.
The Health Ministry says it has boosted testing for the virus from some 500-700 tests a day to around 2,200 per day and officials have said the number of tests would increase to 3,000 per day by Sunday and 5,000 per day by the following week.
Unnamed officials from the ministry told the Kan public broadcaster on Sunday that the Defense Ministry was trying to wrest control of the country’s efforts to deal with the pandemic.
The officials claimed Defense Minister Naftali Bennett was taking advantage of the crisis as an attempt to increase his public profile by gaining sympathy and political capital.
The IDF has taken on an increasingly high-profile role over the past weeks, running the new so-called “coronavirus hotels” where patients with mild symptoms are isolated as part of an effort to ease the load on the country’s hospitals as they deal with the rising number of patients diagnosed with the COVID-19 illness. Dubbing its efforts against the coronavirus “Ray of Light,” the Israel Defense Forces on Thursday said it was moving to a higher state of readiness, one normally reserved for preparation for an enemy attack, which the military stresses was not in light of external threats but rather because of the pandemic.
The Defense Ministry responded to the attack by the officials, saying: “For a number of weeks, Defense Minister Naftali Bennett has been pushing to increase the daily number of tests to 30,000 a day in order to identify coronavirus patients, remove them from the community and transfer them to hotels to interrupt the infection chain. A daily rate of 2,000-3,000 tests is not satisfactory, and will allow the continued mass infection of the population.”
The disease generally only shows mild symptoms in the young and healthy, but can cause serious respiratory issues and death in older adults and those with underlying conditions.