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Virus sees lowest rates in 3 months; gov’t said weighing opening ‘red’ cities

1,608 new cases diagnosed Thursday, positive tests at 4.5%; Health Ministry urges teachers of kids under 6 to get tested ahead of Sunday opening of preschools, daycares

Health care doctors and medics take test samples of Jerusalemites to check if they have been infected with the coronavirus in Sheikh Jarrah, Jerusalem on October 08, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Health care doctors and medics take test samples of Jerusalemites to check if they have been infected with the coronavirus in Sheikh Jarrah, Jerusalem on October 08, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The number of daily virus cases and the percentage of positive tests continued to decline on Friday, ahead of next week’s reopening of some parts of the economy after a month-long nationwide lockdown.

Meanwhile, the government was reported to be considering removing restrictions from all cities Sunday — including those with high infection rates that officials had planned to keep under closure.

According to the Health Ministry, 1,608 new cases were diagnosed on Thursday, while the percentage of tests returning positive dipped to 4.5 percent, the lowest rate since mid-July. It said 37,487 tests were conducted Thursday.

Over 300,000 virus cases have been diagnosed since the start of the pandemic, 38,355 of which are active. According to the ministry, 713 people are in serious condition, 247 of whom are on ventilators. Another 219 are in moderate condition, with the rest displaying mild or no symptoms. Overall, 1,259 are hospitalized with the disease.

The death toll climbed to 2,128 on Friday morning, with seven more deaths recorded since Thursday night.

People walk past a billboard posted by the Health Ministry instructing people to wear face masks, in Jerusalem on October 11, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The latest figures matched the government’s goal of reaching under 2,000 daily cases to ease some lockdown restrictions on Sunday.

Ministers agreed on Thursday to lift the limit on Israelis traveling more than one kilometer from home unless for specific permitted purposes; allow them to visit others’ homes so long as caps on gatherings are adhered to (10 indoors, 20 outdoors); reopen preschools and daycares; allow restaurants to serve takeout; permit businesses that don’t receive customers to open; allow Israelis to visit beaches and national parks; and reopen the Western Wall plaza and Temple Mount compound for worship under certain restrictions.

The government was expected to keep tighter restrictions on cities with high morbidity rates — a status currently largely limited to ultra-Orthodox cities.

But unconfirmed reports on Channel 12 and Walla news on Friday said coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu was looking at possibly easing restrictions in high morbidity towns as well, citing a significant drop in cases in these locales too.

Minister were set to convene at 2 p.m. Friday to discuss policy toward so-called “red” cities.

According to multiple media reports, the government has also agreed on a plan to reopen ultra-Orthodox yeshivas next week according to the previously implemented “capsule” program.

Restrictions on flights in and out of Ben Gurion Airport were lifted on Thursday night, as per a government decision Wednesday.

Former Health Ministry director-general Gabi Barabash, a frequent media commentator during the pandemic, on Friday criticized the decision to begin emerging from the lockdown next week.

“They shouldn’t have set the threshold to exit the lockdown at 2,000 cases a day. They should have put it far lower at dozens or between 100 and 200, because it’s much easier to control,” Barabash told 103FM Radio.

He said reopening the education system under the current conditions was “very dangerous.” It would have been better “to wait another week” before starting to reopen, Barabash opined.

Ultra Orthodox Jewish men study at the Gur Imrei Emes yeshiva in Bnei Brak, June 16, 2020 (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

A statement from the Prime Minister’s Office said the plan to lift some rules on Sunday won’t be implemented if cases rise beyond 2,000 daily or if the basic reproduction number (measuring transmission of the disease) is higher than 0.8.

Children at a kindergarten in Jerusalem after a two month coronavirus lockdown, May 10, 2020. (Yonatan SIndel/Flash90)

Ahead of the reopening of education institutions for children under the age of six, the government on Friday urged preschool and kindergarten teachers to go get tested for the virus, to “ensure a safe return [to school] for the children and staff.”

State-subsidized daycares on Thursday said they would not be ready to reopen on Sunday.

The first phase of reopening after a month-long nationwide closure is part of a Health Ministry plan for a gradual, several-month exit based on epidemiological benchmarks.

Israel has been under a national lockdown for the past month to contain a raging second wave of the pandemic, which at one point reached some 9,000 daily cases. Recent days have seen both the number of daily cases and the percentage of positive tests go down amid the sweeping restrictions on the public. The death toll is rising, however, crossing 2,000 on Sunday — just five weeks after it passed 1,000.

Speaking to reporters Thursday after the decision to lift some restrictions was approved, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said Israel still had a long way to go to curb the virus.

“There is still a long road ahead and we will do it together,” he said.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein speaks during a press conference at Airport City, outside Tel Aviv, on September 17, 2020. (Flash90)

Edelstein said virus numbers will likely rise slightly every time the government lifts some restrictions. He said the government may be forced to pull back and pause the gradual exit from the lockdown if infections spiral, but added that he “very much hopes” that doesn’t happen.

Despite the planned opening of daycares and preschools, Edelstein expressed concern about a potential outbreak there.

“We are very worried about a possible rise of infections in preschools,” he said.

Israel shuttered all schools just weeks after the school year began last month, with the reopening of the education system partly blamed for a sudden surge in virus cases. The reopening of schools in May after a two-month lockdown was also seen as a catalyst for a spike in cases at the time.

According to Education Ministry figures cited by Hebrew media earlier this week, 94 percent of preschools have not recorded a single COVID-19 case, while 53% of grade schools have not seen any cases. Less than half of high schools — 45% — have not had any infections.

Israeli parents escort their children for the first day of school, during the coronavirus pandemic, in Tel Aviv on September 1, 2020. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

Under the Health Ministry’s plan, students from first to fourth grades are expected to resume in-person studies when the daily cases hit 1,000, while those in fifth grade and above will go back to class when daily COVID-19 diagnoses drop to 250, health officials have said.

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