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Virus cases stay high as lockdown bites; 70% of Israelis 60+ have had first shot

Netanyahu and Edelstein to get Pfizer’s second dose Saturday; 1.7 million Israelis have been vaccinated, but daily infections still near all-time record

Israelis wait to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, at a vaccination center operated by the Tel Aviv Municipality with Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center (Ichilov), at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, December 31, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Israelis wait to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, at a vaccination center operated by the Tel Aviv Municipality with Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center (Ichilov), at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, December 31, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Israel’s infection rates have remained high but steady, according to figures released Friday morning, after the country tightened its lockdown in an effort to curb a raging COVID-19 outbreak that is threatening to overshadow its successful vaccination campaign.

Some 115,000 people received their first dose of the COVID-19 shot Thursday, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said, bringing the total number of Israelis inoculated to 1.7 million out of a population of 9.29 million, by far the highest vaccination rate in the world. The Health Ministry said more than 70 percent of Israelis over the age of 60 have now received the first shot.

From Saturday, the second dose will start being administered in the country, three weeks after Edelstein and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu became the first in Israel to get the Pfizer inoculation.

However, daily coronavirus cases nationwide were around 8,000 for the fourth day in a row, according to Health Ministry figures. The highest daily tally since the start of the pandemic was on September 30, when over 9,000 infections were recorded while the country was under a second lockdown.

The percentage of positive tests out of total tests was also slightly down, from 6.9 percent on Tuesday to 6.2% on Wednesday and Thursday. The number of tests conducted on Wednesday, 127,679, is the highest since the pandemic began, with another 122,584 Thursday, coming in second.

The Health Ministry said 7,597 cases were confirmed Thursday, bringing the total number of confirmed cases in the country to 474,018, including 63,440 active cases — nearing the record of over 72,000 active cases reached in late September.

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

Of them, 894 were in serious condition — dropping from the all-time high Wednesday of 928 — including 226 on ventilators and 272 listed as being in critical condition. Another 241 were in moderate condition, and the rest had mild or no symptoms.

The death toll rose to 3,587.

Additional Health Ministry data reported by the Ynet news site showed 13.2% of all COVID-19 deaths since the start of the pandemic have been residents of Jerusalem, 464 people. In Tel Aviv there were 198 fatalities, Bnei Brak saw 152, Haifa had 140, and Bat Yam had 129. The virus appeared to be more deadly for men, who make up 57% of the victims. The average age of coronavirus-related death in Israel is 78.6.

The tightened lockdown took effect as Israel pushed on with its vaccination campaign. Some 1,700,000 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 to ensure those who received the first dose would get the second one, set to begin Saturday.

“Tomorrow I will be happy to be the second Israeli to receive the second vaccine dose,” Edelstein announced Friday.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein receives a coronavirus vaccine at Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan on December 19, 2020. (Amir Cohen/Pool/AFP)

The first batch of vaccines from US bio-firm Moderna arrived Thursday, and 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.

Along with closing schools and nonessential businesses, the new rules require all travelers returning from the United Kingdom and South Africa, where new strains of the virus have been spreading, 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.

People who landed on a flight from England arrive at the Dan Panorama Hotel in Jerusalem, which is being used as a quarantine facility, on December 20, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Health Ministry and police opened an investigation into a Jerusalem health clinic that allegedly provided counterfeit coronavirus recovery certificates, in exchange for payment — allowing at least 20 people who entered Israel, mostly from the United States, to be exempt from quarantine, Ynet reported.

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.

Police at a temporary checkpoint during Israel’s third coronavirus lockdown, Jerusalem, December 29, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

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.

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