Virus cases up, positive test rate steady as ministers to meet on lockdown exit

3,107 people test positive, well above 2,000 daily case threshold for easing restrictions; teachers union warns that school system won’t reopen without increased safety measures

The Hadar shopping mall in Jerusalem where most stores remain closed due to restrictions taken to prevent the spread of the coronavirus on October 12, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/FLASH90)
The Hadar shopping mall in Jerusalem where most stores remain closed due to restrictions taken to prevent the spread of the coronavirus on October 12, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/FLASH90)

New infections rose sharply Monday on increased testing, Health Ministry figures showed Tuesday, as ministers were set to meet on an exit plan from the national lockdown.

On Monday, 3,107 people tested positive for the coronavirus out of 47,257 tests administered.

The reported threshold for the easing of restrictions, expected to start on Sunday, is 2,000 new cases per day. Saturday and Sunday both saw drastically lower case tallies, 907 and 1,624 respectively, but those days also saw a significant fall-off in testing levels.

According to the Health Ministry, 7 percent of tests came back positive on Monday — the lowest rate since August 27 (5.9%).

In the six weeks since that date, Israel has recorded over 1,000 deaths and on Tuesday evening passed the bleak threshold of 2,000 fatalities since the start of the pandemic.

Positivity rates hovered at around 12%-13% over September and early October, at one point reaching a high of 15%, but have dropped sharply over the last week as a nationwide lockdown has appeared to be curbing the spread of the virus. A reduced number of tests would usually be expected to raise the positivity rate.

Magen David Adom workers outside a nursing home in Jerusalem on October 12, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

As of Tuesday morning, 2,032 Israelis had died of COVID-19, an increase of sixteen since Monday evening.

There have been 295,625 confirmed cases of the virus in Israel since the start of the pandemic, with 51,564 active cases.

Of those, there were 826 in serious condition including 254 on ventilators. There were 274 patients in moderate condition, with the rest displaying mild or no symptoms.

According to the Health Ministry, the top five locations with the highest number of active cases per 10,000 residents were all majority ultra-Orthodox: Modiin Illit (303 active cases per 10,000 residents), Tifrah (285), Rechasim (245), Bnei Brak (231) and Elad (185).

The Health Ministry figures were released ahead of an expected ministerial meeting on a plan to exit the national lockdown implemented over three weeks ago to contain a raging second wave of the pandemic, which at one point reached some 9,000 daily cases.

A worker from ‘Hevra Kadisha,’ Israel’s official Jewish burial society, prepares bodies at a special morgue for COVID-19 victims in Holon, near Tel Aviv, Oct. 12, 2020. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

According to Hebrew-language media reports, the Health Ministry’s plan to gradually ease the national coronavirus lockdown will last some four months and depend on decreasing daily case numbers, but there is already pressure from business owners, parents and some politicians to swiftly reopen commercial activity and schools.

The plan proposes target dates for the different stages of lifting restrictions, but any easing of the limitations could be pushed off if the infection rate hasn’t dropped enough.

Health officials are expected to tell ministers that the first stage of the plan, slated to begin October 18, is dependent on the number of new daily cases dropping to 2,000 with 30,000 tests administered per day and only 3% of those infected with the virus classified as seriously ill, Channel 13 news reported Tuesday.

Health officials are also seeking a rate of spread figure of 0.8 new infections per carrier or lower before implementing the plan.

Illustration of an empty classroom in a school in Mevaseret Zion, August 27, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

It is expected the first stage will see preschools reopen as well as businesses that do not serve customers. However, a final decision on early childhood education facilities is reportedly not expected until the end of the week.

Health experts have blamed the swift emergence from the first lockdown, as well as a decision to open most schools almost immediately, as a major factor that lead to the uncontrolled resurgence of the virus in the summer and fall.

The national teachers union on Tuesday warned that the education system would not reopen on Sunday due to the absence of safety protocols, with the union’s head refusing to rule out the possibility of declaring a labor dispute and then strike.

“The education system cannot reopen on Sunday,” Israel Teachers Union secretary-general Yaffa Ben David told the Ynet news site. “It’s not because of us, but because of the lack of preparation of the ministries.”

Secretary-general of the Israel Teachers’ Union Yaffa Ben-David speaks during a protest event in Tel Aviv on August 29, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

According to Ben David, there are four main issues: a lack of protection for teaching staff, a lack of additional staff, the mixing of teaching staff and children from red and green localities, and a lack of enforcement of regulations by parents.

Last month as the country entered its second national lockdown, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu acknowledged that his government had reopened parts of the economy too quickly after the first lockdown.

The exit plan from the second lockdown involves the so-called traffic light program, which divides towns into color-coded categories of red, orange, yellow and green according to the severity of the outbreak they are experiencing.

Officials have said different locales could see different timelines for lifting the lockdown. However, that system collapsed earlier in the year when the ultra-Orthodox population protested it was being singled out.

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, has said in recent days that he will support the plan if it means the rest of the country can reopen completely, according to reports.

Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on Route 1 between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, October 6, 2020 (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

The government informed the High Court of Justice on Monday that it will not extend controversial special emergency measures that have barred mass gatherings of anti-Netanyahu protesters. The emergency powers are set to expire Tuesday at midnight, which would allow mass protests to resume Wednesday.

Netanyahu has said the restrictions were driven by safety concerns as the country battled a runaway pandemic, but critics and protesters have accused him of tightening the lockdown to muzzle dissent.

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