The number of serious patients in Israel dropped to 290 on Thursday, the lowest figure in four months, as the cap on outdoor gatherings was increased from 50 to 100. The decrease led the Health Ministry to present the government with a plan to ease restrictions on the education system.
Last week there were 381 serious patients, while the figure at the peak of the pandemic in the second half of January stood at 1,200 for several days. Health experts and officials have repeatedly indicated that the country’s hospital system could handle up to 800 patients without compromising quality of care.
“We can’t say that COVID is not with us anymore, but we are in a great situation,” said ministry Director-General Chezy Levy.
Some 274 new cases were identified on Wednesday, with 0.5% of about 55,000 tests returning positive, a similar rate to recent days. The previous period when there was such a low percentage of tests returned positive was in May 2020.
As of Thursday morning, the death toll was 6,270, after six people succumbed to the virus over the previous 24 hours, a figure also in line with recent days. At the peak of the pandemic, a record 77 deaths occurred on January 24.
After rising for a few days, the virus’s reproduction rate, or “R,” started to decline again and stood at 0.76, after falling as low as 0.55 the previous week. It reached 0.79 on Wednesday. The R rate represents the number of people each virus carrier on average would infect. As long as the rate stands below 1, and especially below 0.8, the disease is in recession.
There are currently fewer than 4,800 active coronavirus cases in the country, down from tens of thousands.
In light of the situation’s steady improvement, the Health Ministry approved a new set of more relaxed regulations on Wednesday night.
Besides increasing the cap on outdoor gatherings from 50 to 100, stadiums will be able to accommodate up to 10,000 people outdoors and 4,000 people – or up to 40% of capacity – indoors.
The limit on accessing public transportation was also increased, as well as the number of visitors to small museums, and on non-professional sporting events and outdoor stand-up events.
The government approved an outline presented by Health Minister Yuli Edelstein to allow students in fourth grade to stop studying in capsules, similar to what has already happened in preschool and grades one to three. Moreover, if in 10 days the morbidity rate does not increase, capsules will also be canceled in grades five and six, according to the outline.
For grades 7-10, students will be able to cycle between four capsules instead of two, allowing them to attend more classes.
In addition, the temperature-taking requirement will be abolished in all education systems.
“Education is the most important thing, and we are making every effort to allow students to go back to classrooms as much as possible while minimizing the risk,” Edelstein said. “It is important to remember that with the exception of 11th and 12th graders, students are not vaccinated and we must protect their health.”
During his briefing, Levy said that the ministry is getting ready to vaccinate 900,000 children age 12-15, as soon as the US Food and Drug Administration grants authorization.
“I really hope that it will happen by May,” said Levy.
The Israeli healthcare providers will carry out the vaccination campaign as they did for the older population, with the support of those organizations that are equipped to reach populations with less access to ordinary clinics.
Levy said while Israel has enough doses to jab about one million adults who still need to be vaccinated, at the moment there aren’t enough vaccines to inoculate the children as well.
“Unfortunately, the agreement has not yet been signed, neither with Pfizer nor with Moderna, because the budget has not yet been approved for further procurement of vaccines, including for year 2022,” he pointed out.
Earlier this week, Pfizer halted shipments to Israel as the country failed to pay for the last 2.5 million vaccines Pfizer supplied. A cabinet meeting that was supposed to authorize the new contract was canceled amid infighting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz.