Virus report warns infections may double within week; 377 diagnosed in 24 hours

Military task force says rate is increasing by 8% per day; diagnosis rate at highest since end of April; possible outbreaks in cities across the country

People shop for food at the Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem on June 17, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
People shop for food at the Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem on June 17, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A report by a military task force on Tuesday warned that Israel could see a doubling in the number of active coronavirus cases within a week.

According to the report from the Coronavirus National Information and Knowledge Center, Israel’s infection rate is now increasing by around eight percent per day and the number of active patients is currently doubling every nine days.

The Health Ministry said Tuesday there were 377 virus cases diagnosed over the previous 24 hours.

The latest cases brought the national total to 21,246, of which 5,127 were active cases — 42 of those in serious condition, 27 of whom were on ventilators. Meanwhile 49 people were in moderate condition, while the rest were mild or asymptomatic cases. The death toll remained at 307.

The figures showed a continuation of the upward trends of the past week, which has seen 200-300 cases a day on most days and a steady increase in the number of patients in serious condition.

Medical staff at the coronavirus unit in Ichilov hospital, Tel Aviv, May 4, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

The task force warned of possible outbreaks in Ar’ara BaNegev, the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, the northern Arab city of Umm al-Fahm and the coastal city of Bat Yam, leading to the mayor of the latter to call for the beaches to be closed once again.

There are particular concerns about the beachfront town, which has a relatively older population in comparison with other outbreak areas.

The document came from a center that reports to the government and is run out of the Israel Defense Forces’ Military Intelligence unit but is supposed to work with the Health Ministry.

The unit also backed the use of technology to try to reduce the spread of the infection, via apps on phones (such as the Israeli Magen program), and the scanning of QR codes at the entrances to indoor spaces as most transmission appears to take place in confined areas.

The military report also promoted the use of geographical phone data, seemingly backing calls by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week for the reactivation of a Shin Bet security service surveillance program to track coronavirus patients, employing procedures that are usually reserved for counterterrorism operations.

The head of the Shin Bet has opposed renewing and anchoring in law the program, which would allow the service to use sensitive personal data to track coronavirus carriers, according to leaks from the high-level cabinet forum dealing with the pandemic response.

The Shin Bet program — which used vast amounts of cellular phone and credit card data to track the movement of coronavirus patients and those in close contact with them — ended earlier this month, nearly three months after it began.

Head of the Shin Bet security service Nadav Argaman attends the Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee meeting at the Knesset on November 6, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The program had been subject to Knesset oversight, but the High Court of Justice ordered the government to craft a law — instead of a temporary emergency regulation — to give the Shin Bet permission to use these tools. Ministers decided to call off the program after having failed to write a bill legislating how it would operate. That decision came after Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman reportedly expressed discomfort at continuing the effort, and as virus cases dropped considerably.

Israel has seen the number of new COVID-19 cases continue to climb, stoking fears of a “second wave” and leading the Health Ministry on Sunday to instruct hospitals around the country to prepare to reopen their coronavirus wards.

The same task force on Sunday warned that closed spaces have greatly increased risk of infection and recommending limiting major gatherings to outdoor spaces, according to the Kan public broadcaster.

A previous report by the task force leaked Saturday warned Israel could soon see thousands of new coronavirus infections a day and hundreds of deaths if immediate measures aren’t taken to contain the resurgent pandemic.

However, a top epidemiologist questioned those results amid reports that the Israel Defense Forces and the Health Ministry were both distancing themselves from its alarming forecasts.

Dr. Hagai Levine, chairman of the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians and an epidemiologist at Hebrew University’s Braun School of Public Health and Community Medicine, censured the report as “unprofessional,” claiming the task force was made up chiefly of army officials and did not include epidemiologists.

According to the Walla news site, both the IDF and Health Ministry were denying having responsibility for the task force following the report’s release, with each claiming the other body oversees it.

Israelis at a cafe in Tel Aviv on June 16, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

But Dr. Gili Regev-Yochay, director of Sheba Medical Center’s Infectious Disease Epidemiology Unit, expressed support for the report, telling Channel 12 it was “very accurate and very worrying.”

Regev-Yochay criticized the conduct of both the government and the public as cases rise, saying reopening the country so quickly “may have been a mistake.”

She added: “We can see today where things are headed three weeks from now… we’re not sufficiently prepared.”

And she repeated concerns by other health officials in recent days that while the first wave of the disease had clear hotspots, this was no longer the case with the new infections.

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