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Virus outbreak continues to abate, but experts warn of potential new surge

Health Ministry figures show 1,165 confirmed cases in 24 hours, with 3% positive rate; officials advise against complacency, say data points to infections rising over coming week

People wearing face masks shop at the Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem as Israel rolls back coronavirus restrictions on October 20, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
People wearing face masks shop at the Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem as Israel rolls back coronavirus restrictions on October 20, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The coronavirus outbreak is continuing to abate, according to figures published Wednesday morning by the Health Ministry, with new daily cases dropping to 1,165 after rising above 8,000 just a few weeks ago. However, officials continued to warn that the downward trend could quickly reverse if the public becomes complacent.

Tuesday’s new infections, in addition to 96 confirmed from midnight through Wednesday morning, brought the nationwide tally since the start of the pandemic to 306,503.

There were 21,010 active cases, a figure that has also dropped dramatically. There were 591 patients in serious condition, including 229 on ventilators. Another 159 were in moderate condition and the rest had mild or no symptoms.

The death toll stood at 2,278.

The rate of positive test results out of all 39,285 tests conducted Tuesday was three percent, continuing a downward trend. In late September, that figure was around 15%.

A military task force wrote in its daily report that Israel was continuing to gain control over the outbreak, but added that in absolute numbers, the morbidity rate was still very high.

That warning comes as experts predict that the downward slide in new coronavirus cases will halt and Israel will see a spike in new cases due to noncompliance with virus guidelines.

“We expect a significant rise in infection in the next seven to 10 days. With the level of violations we are seeing, there’s no escaping it,” an unnamed Health Ministry official told Channel 12 news on Tuesday.

“All the data points to infection rates starting to grow in several days,” Pierre Singer, a member of coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu’s team of experts, told the network Wednesday. “People were told they can go back to meeting friends and family, but what wasn’t emphasized is the importance of keeping precautions like distance and face masks.

“People are interpreting the instructions as they want and that’s causing loss of control,” he said, adding that it was too early to decide on a further easing of restrictions because there was insufficient data on the consequences of the previous measures.

Magen David Adom emergency service workers outside the coronavirus unit at the Hadassah Ein Karem hospital in Jerusalem, October 19, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

On Tuesday, Channel 12 reported that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had quietly agreed with his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners to avoid any tough action on Haredi health violations, while publicly taking a strong stance on the matter.

While the prime minister will level harsh rhetoric against lockdown violations, in practice he will coordinate enforcement with ultra-Orthodox leaders behind the scenes, the report said, without citing a source.

Earlier Tuesday, ministers voted to lift increased restrictions from nearly all locales that had remained under Israel’s high-infection classification in recent days. The move means only the Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo will remain a so-called red zone, with special restrictions beyond those in the rest of the country.

A source close to Netanyahu, meanwhile, told several TV networks that the possibility of nightly curfews was being considered should virus cases spike again. The move, which was tried to little effect in some hotspots last month, would likely last from midnight until 5 a.m., Channel 12 reported.

Israelis in Tel Aviv, October 20, 2020. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

The opening of the education system and policies toward ultra-Orthodox communities have become the main sticking points in Israel’s reopening.

There has been growing public anger at the defiance shown by some in the ultra-Orthodox population toward health regulations amid the pandemic. Sunday saw hundreds of Haredi schools open up in violation of the rules, after a leading rabbi instructed them to do so. The move was backed by a leading ultra-Orthodox legislator Sunday evening.

The ultra-Orthodox have seen a disproportionately high number of virus cases. In early October, officials said 40 percent of all new coronavirus infections were among the ultra-Orthodox, though they constitute only approximately 12% of the population.

A poll published Sunday found that most Israelis believe political considerations are the leading factor in the government decision-making process as it seeks to bring the country out of lockdown.

Police guard at a temporary checkpoint in the entrance to the neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo in Jerusalem, in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, on October 18, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The health and education ministries traded barbs Tuesday over policies amid heated disagreements among officials over plans to open elementary schools.

An Education Ministry source told Walla news that the Health Ministry was not being forthcoming with the reopening of the school system.

“Every week we get a different set of answers which don’t match up between what appears in the press and what is written down, and which change from person to person. We don’t understand if this is a part of the ministry’s plans,” the source said.

The Health Ministry fired back, saying, “It’s easiest to find excuses.”

“Even without the coronavirus, every parent in Israel knows the education system was not ready for smaller classes,” the source added. “Even 100 reforms won’t help. The virus just exposed the existing ills in the system.”

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