Further restrictions would show 'lack of faith in Israelis'

Virus czar orders hospitals to open new COVID wards, warns of 600 deaths monthly

‘Our situation is very grave,’ says Gamzu as toll rises to 1,256 and hospitals expected to reach limit of 800 serious cases; further restrictions unlikely until after Yom Kippur

Soroka Medical Center staff members at the hospital's coronavirus ward, in Be'er Sheva, on September 15, 2020. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
Soroka Medical Center staff members at the hospital's coronavirus ward, in Be'er Sheva, on September 15, 2020. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Israel’s coronavirus czar warned Sunday that virus numbers were reaching “emergency” levels that could see the country face 600 deaths a month, and ordered hospitals to add new virus wards.

Prof. Ronni Gamzu said in an interview with Channel 12 news that he fears the number of COVID-19 patients in serious condition could reach 800 by the end of the week, a number that has been frequently cited as the maximum Israeli hospitals can cope with.

Gamzu said he feared that at current rates, Israel will see some 20 deaths a day, or 600 per month, nearly half of the national toll since the start of the pandemic.

“Our situation is very grave,” he said. Israel recorded 30 new deaths in 24 hours on Saturday.

The Health Ministry on Sunday reported another 2,122 coronavirus cases since midnight Saturday, bringing the number of infections since the pandemic began to 187,902. It also confirmed another six deaths since, raising the national toll to 1,256.

The case number was significantly lower than recent days, but that likely reflected the drop in testing over the Rosh Hashanah holiday.

The ministry said there are 52,577 confirmed active cases, including 643 people in serious condition, with a record 170 on ventilators.

Gamzu said that with the number of serious cases likely to soon hit 800, he had ordered all hospitals to open additional coronavirus wards, warning “we’re in an emergency,” and noting there would be some reduction in elective medical procedures.

Virus czar, Prof. Roni Gamzu, seen during a meeting at the Jerusalem city hall on August 12, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

However, Gamzu said that at this stage he did not favor further tightening restrictions on the public, two days into a second national lockdown.

Channel 12 said both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein back further restrictions.

Among the new measures being weighed were further limiting the number of employees at private sector workplaces and upping enforcement of the virus regulations at protests and synagogues, according to the report.

“We have to give it a chance before we express our complete lack of faith in Israelis. The government has to give it a chance,” Gamzu said, noting that “the price for the complete shutdown of the private sector is very harsh.”

However, TV news outlets said any tightening of the national coronavirus lockdown was not expected to take force before Yom Kippur. The Day of Atonement begins this year on the night of September 27 and ends the next evening.

Gamzu said that based on the evidence of the first two days of lockdown, most Israeli’s were complying and not looking for “loopholes.”

The lockdown was largely respected Saturday and Sunday, with the country’s roads generally empty, as Israel marked the first of two days of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

There were, however, reports of some gatherings disbanded by police. These included hundreds of worshipers at a synagogue in Haifa on both Friday and Saturday, who packed the entrance to the synagogue without complying with social distancing; and a small party of several dozen people at a Tel Aviv beach Saturday evening, who claimed to be protesting against the closure.

Meanwhile, Channel 12 reported that police did not enforce the government-approved restrictions on prayers during Rosh Hashanah at ultra-Orthodox synagogues in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak.

In the first real challenge, thousands gathered outside Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem and were trying to comply with new social distancing regulations for demonstrations.

Police were dividing protesters into “capsules” and demonstrators were seen marking the streets with chalk to designate spots on which to stand.

Israeli protesters hold signs and chant slogans during a demonstration against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu near the Prime Minister’s residence in Jerusalem, Sunday, Sept. 20, 2020. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

Participants gathered late Sunday for a weekly protest against Netanyahu outside his official residence in Jerusalem, in the first such demonstration since the start of a renewed nationwide lockdown to combat the coronavirus pandemic and after fresh restrictions were announced on those taking part.

While protests were exempt from the new restrictions on movement and gatherings, Israel imposed a new national coronavirus lockdown starting on Friday, the country’s second this year. This marked the first time in the world a developed country has imposed a repeat closure to curb the pandemic. The lockdown is set to last three weeks, but observers have said it might be in place longer as the country tries to battle record daily cases.

In Tel Aviv on Saturday, around 200 people gathered on the beach to protest against the lockdown restrictions as well as against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s handling of the pandemic and his corruption indictments.

Israelis protest against the nationwide lockdown and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the beach in Tel Aviv, September 19, 2020 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Organizers used a loophole within the regulations for the national coronavirus lockdown that allows people to travel beyond the permitted one kilometer from their home if they are to attend a protest. Closure regulations do not explicitly prevent demonstrating on the beach, although the beach is closed with the exception of those who use the shoreline for sport.

Some demonstrators performed sporting activities, while another blew a shofar — an activity which also has a travel loophole in the regulations.

The three-week shutdown, requiring the closure of many businesses and setting strict limits on movement and public gatherings, started just hours before Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, and will extend through other key religious holidays, including Yom Kippur and Sukkot.

Israelis protest against the three-week nationwide lockdown and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the beach in Tel Aviv, September 19, 2020 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

On Friday, some 7,000 policemen and soldiers, backed up by local municipality personnel, were deployed throughout the country to enforce the closure using roadblocks and patrols. There have been concerns that an exhausted and exasperated Israeli public would be far less cooperative with the new sweeping restrictions than during the initial wave of the pandemic.

Fines for individuals who break rules are set at NIS 500 ($145) and for businesses at NIS 5,000 ($1,450).

Netanyahu said ahead of the closure that the government had been left with no choice but to impose a lockdown.

“The health system has raised the red flag… We did everything we could to strike a balance between the health needs and needs of the economy,” he said in a televised address on Thursday.

Kite surfers are seen at sunset off the coast of Tel Aviv on September 19 2020, as the country imposes a second lockdown amid a spike in coronavirus cases.(MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

While the government was praised for its initial handling of the pandemic, implementing a strict lockdown in March, many Israelis have expressed frustration at the cabinet’s perceived mismanagement of the health crisis in recent months.

Israel is the first developed country to impose a second lockdown, though many Western nations have seen a new surge of virus cases in recent weeks, and some are considering fresh restrictions, including the UK.

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