Virus cases top 8,000 for 2nd straight day as minister warns against complacency

Active infections, serious cases nearing all-time high; mass wedding held in Beitar Illit, which has 26% positive test rate; Edelstein says 115,000 people vaccinated Tuesday

Health care workers take coronavirus test samples of Israelis in a drive through complex in Jerusalem, January 4, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Health care workers take coronavirus test samples of Israelis in a drive through complex in Jerusalem, January 4, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Daily coronavirus cases have topped 8,000 for the second day in a row, according to Health Ministry figures published Wednesday morning, as the health minister cautioned against complacency but a mass wedding was held in one of the country’s worst virus hotspots.

The ministry said 8,164 new cases were confirmed on Tuesday, a day after the number hit 8,371 — the highest daily tally since over 9,000 infections were recorded on September 30, when the country was under a second lockdown.

The percentage of positive tests out of total tests was slightly down, from 7.6 percent on Monday to 6.8% on Tuesday. The number of tests conducted on Tuesday, 119,525, is the highest since the pandemic began.

The total number of confirmed cases in the country rose to 458,132, including 59,229 active cases — nearing the record of over 72,000 active cases reached in late September.

Ichilov hospital team members wearing protective gear as they work at the coronavirus department of Ichilov hospital in Tel Aviv, on January 01, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Of them, 824 were in serious condition — also nearing an all-time high — including 207 on ventilators and 271 listed as being in critical condition. Another 221 were in moderate condition, and the rest had mild or no symptoms.

The death toll rose to 3,495.

Government ministers voted Tuesday night in favor of tightening the current nationwide lockdown by shuttering schools and nonessential businesses for two weeks, with the aim of cutting rising daily infections.

The increased measures will come into force at midnight between Thursday and Friday, according to the Prime Minister’s Office and the Health Ministry.

Medical personnel wearing protective equipment treat COVID-19 patients in an intensive care ward that has been converted from underground parking, at Rambam Hospital in the northern city of Haifa, December 15, 2020 (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it “one final effort” to keep COVID-19 at bay, as contagion spreads alarmingly even as Israel continues its vaccination campaign. Leading the world in per capita vaccinations, Israel had inoculated some 1.5 million of its 9.3 million populace by late Tuesday, including some 55% of its 60-plus age group.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein tweeted Wednesday morning that over 115,000 people got the first dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine on Tuesday, bringing the total to around 1.5 million.

“I ask you not to be complacent,” he wrote. “Tomorrow at midnight a tight lockdown will begin. It is important to adhere to the rules. Another push and we’re done.”

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

However, reports on Wednesday morning said that hundreds had attended a wedding Tuesday night in the ultra-Orthodox settlement of Beitar Illit — mostly without wearing masks — against the rules that only allow up to 20 people to congregate together outdoors.

Beitar Illit is one of the country’s worst virus hotspots, with 145.5 COVID-19 patients per 10,000 people and a positive test rate of 26% — the highest in Israel.

When police arrived to break up the illegal gathering in a local synagogue, dozens of wedding guests clashed with the cops and threw rocks at them, damaging a police vehicle.

The event organizers and the owner of the venue were summoned for questioning.

Additionally, Army Radio reported that Haredi community leaders were weighing opening the education system during the lockdown, illegally.

Commenting on the report, Edelstein told the radio station: “We are all in the same boat and sometimes people punch holes in the boat. When there are holes in the lockdown, there are violations on multiple fronts. Everyone will face enforcement.”

Speaking with the Kan public broadcaster, the health minister said the tightened lockdown would not prevent protests, but urged the public not to attend them.

“This is unnecessary at this time when there’s an election,” Edelstein said. “Whoever wants to act against the government can express their opinion through their vote or campaigning.”

He also hailed the reports that Moderna would deliver the first batch of its vaccines earlier than expected, saying there wouldn’t be a significant halt in the vaccination campaign.

Israel began its third national virus lockdown last week, but the closure has been slammed as ineffective and full of holes, with schools and workplaces remaining largely open and a lack of enforcement. Health officials have for days been urging a full lockdown, while many Israelis have been seen to be largely ignoring the instruction to stay home, amid apparent weariness with the ever-changing regulations and a sense that the vaccination campaign underway means the pandemic is nearing its end.

The new lockdown rules will include closing all workplaces, except for essential workers; limiting gatherings to five indoors, 10 outdoors; and maintaining the limit on traveling beyond 1 kilometer from home.

In perhaps the largest difference to the current limitations, all schools are set to be shuttered, except for special education institutions.

Additionally, Israelis who have not already bought a plane ticket to travel abroad during the two-week period will not be allowed to fly, the PMO said. Kan reported that the government will also reintroduce the obligation for all arrivals to Israel to enter state-run hotels for quarantine of up to two weeks.

Traffic jams in Tel Aviv as police put up a temporary ‘checkpoint’ during a nationwide lockdown, September 21, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The current lockdown rules bar Israelis from entering another person’s home; restrict movement to one kilometer (six-tenths of a mile) from home, with exceptions, such as for vaccinations; shut down commerce (except for essentials), leisure, and entertainment; limit public transportation to 50 percent capacity; and limit workplaces that do not deal with customers face-to-face to 50% capacity.

Amid the already-ballooning virus spread, the mutated, highly infectious strain of the virus first diagnosed in Britain has been detected in Israel, leading to fears it could fuel even more cases. Another strain, from South Africa, has not yet been detected in Israel but is believed to be even more transmissible.

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