No plans for Hanukkah lockdown as virus test positivity rate rises to 2.5%

Another 1,500 cases diagnosed Friday; Health Ministry said calling for government to announce clear criteria for potential third lockdown

Hospital medical staff wearing protective clothes move patients to a coronavirus ward at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, on November 16, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Hospital medical staff wearing protective clothes move patients to a coronavirus ward at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, on November 16, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The government will not impose a national coronavirus lockdown during the Hanukkah holiday, which takes place December 10-18, but will urge the public to celebrate only in nuclear families and to maintain health precautions, TV networks reported Saturday night.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein confirmed as much to Channel 12, saying the ministry will focus on recommendations for the public to avoid gatherings, rather than a national closure.

Meanwhile, according to Channel 12, the Health Ministry is calling for the government to announce clear criteria for a potential third lockdown, while suggesting this could actually encourage the public to maintain virus guidelines in order to avoid such an eventuality.

The report said the ministry is seeking the main criteria for such a lockdown to be a viral basic reproduction number of 1.4. The basic reproduction number is the average number of people each virus carrier infects. It currently stands at 1.19 nationwide, having nearly doubled in just over a month.

The latest Health Ministry data released Saturday evening showed another 1,506 coronavirus cases were diagnosed Friday, continuing the rising trend in daily cases. The share of tests to come back positive also rose slightly to 2.5 percent, from around 2.3 percent in recent days.

With the so-called coronavirus cabinet set to meet Sunday, a fight was expected over shopping malls. Edelstein and the Health Ministry are opposed to the continued opening after a pilot program saw some 15 centers open in recent days. Health officials believe crowding at malls can contribute to rising infections.

Meanwhile the economy and finance ministries believe the pilot was a success and want to open more malls. according to multiple reports. They argue that opening further locations will mitigate issues of crowding that plagued the pilot.

The number of active cases on Saturday stood at 13,054, of which 314 were in serious condition. The total number of diagnosed cases since the start of the pandemic stood at 343,665.

The death toll stood at 2,901.

According to Channel 12, there is concern that some of the latest infections are being driven by arrivals from abroad who are failing to properly quarantine as required by law, with only a quarter of those returning following the quarantine requirements.

It said the government is currently looking at introducing a new quarantine tracking system that will automatically send text messages to those ordered to quarantine twice a day, at random times. The individuals will need to confirm they are at the quarantine location, with the system able to confirm whether the text message was sent from where the person was instructed to stay.

View of the Departure hall in Terminal 1 at Ben Gurion Airport, near Tel Aviv on December 1, 2020 (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

However, the matter is currently under debate, with Justice Ministry officials voicing privacy concerns, the report said.

Meanwhile, Channel 12 said the Health Ministry is seeking to force all Israeli arrivals from Greece, Cyprus, Turkey and Bulgaria to quarantine at government-run hotels rather than at home — to prevent the breaking of quarantine.

Recent days have seen daily case numbers and test positivity rates slowly but steadily rise, with numerous health officials warning that Israel appears to be heading into a third wave of the pandemic.

On Friday, the Coronavirus National Information and Knowledge Center, operating under the IDF Military Intelligence Directorate in cooperation with the Health Ministry, said that “for every two days in which the current infection rate is maintained, a day of full lockdown will be required to restore things to the previous state.”

It recommended not only halting any further easing of restrictions, but considering reinstating some limitations “to halt the upward trend and prevent the pandemic from getting out of control.”

The government this week continued to roll back many of the rules that were in place during the second nationwide lockdown that began in mid-September, with high school students returning to class on Sunday, weeks after younger students did, and some malls allowed to reopen last week. Some museums also reopened Tuesday under a pilot program.

People wear protective face masks in Tel Aviv, on November 5, 2020. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, the acting head of the ministry’s public health services division, on Thursday said she hoped Israel could avoid a third nationwide lockdown. In an interview with Kan news, Alroy-Preis noted that the number of cases has tripled in four weeks.

Her warning joined that of coronavirus czar Nachman Ash, who said Tuesday that Israel was in a “state of emergency” due to climbing infections.

Sharon Alroy-Preis. (Courtesy)

Israel is working hard to secure COVID-19 vaccines for its population, and on Friday signed an agreement with Moderna to triple the number of vaccines the American pharmaceutical company will supply. The original agreement for two million doses was expanded to six million — enough for three million Israelis.

“This gives us hope, we see the light at the end of the tunnel,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

TV networks reported Thursday that Israel is set to receive up to four million doses of Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine by the end of this month — enough for two million people — and the Health Ministry is preparing health maintenance organizations for the possibility of inoculating some 80,000 Israelis every day.

The first Israelis expected to be vaccinated are those working in medical services, the elderly and people at especially high risk.

None of the vaccines have received approval as of yet from the US Food and Drug Administration, though approval for Pfizer may come this week and Moderna expects to get the okay this month as well.

Health Minister Edelstein on Friday hailed the extra vaccine purchase as “wonderful news for the citizens of Israel and for the Israeli economy,” but stressed that the general public needed to maintain social-distancing guidelines and avoid letting its guard down.

A researcher in a laboratory in Oxford, England works on the coronavirus vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University, November 23, 2020. (University of Oxford/John Cairns via AP, File)

With the Pfizer vaccines alone, up to a fifth of Israel’s population could be vaccinated by January — a far more optimistic projection than previously assumed.

But even when the vaccine arrives, officials fear large swaths of the public may be averse to receiving the shots. Polls in Israel and abroad have shown many fear the extraordinarily fast approval process for the vaccines may make them less safe.

An unsourced report on Channel 12 Friday said Netanyahu and Edelstein may get vaccinated on-camera early on, to serve as an example to the public and assuage concerns.

Britain on Wednesday became the first country to approve Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for general use and said it would be introduced next week.

Health officials have warned that vaccines are unlikely to provide a swift solution to the pandemic, and that ongoing restrictions on the public will likely remain for some time, as will the need for social distancing, mask-wearing and other safety practices.

On Wednesday morning, Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch said that officials were still weighing recommending a national curfew to stem family visits over Hanukkah and Christmas amid the continued rise in new infections.

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