Coronavirus closure proving ineffective as cases climb

Effectiveness of the lockdown is a "question mark," according to coronavirus commissioner Prof. Nachman Ash.

Police officers enforcing third lockdown on inter-city roads  (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/ MAARIV)
Police officers enforcing third lockdown on inter-city roads
It has been less than a week since the lockdown began and already the Health Ministry is asking that restrictions be tightened, even as nearly 800,000 Israelis are vaccinated against coronavirus.
Coronavirus commissioner Prof. Nachman Ash said that the effectiveness of the lockdown is a “question mark” on Wednesday during a meeting he held with local council heads. He explained that whereas in previous closures traffic was reduced by around 60%, today only about 20% fewer people are out and about.
The challenge is that the Health Ministry knows that it lacks government support to move any new restrictions forward. As such, “the only thing that will save us is personal responsibility,” Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said during a Wednesday TV interview with Channel 12.
He told the station that Israel is unlikely to reach the coveted 1,000 or fewer cases per day that the government agreed upon hitting before lifting the lockdown. Rather, he surmised, by sometime in mid-January or early February a large enough percentage of the elderly and at-risk population could be vaccinated, which would allow the country some relief.
In the meantime, the numbers are soaring.
The Health Ministry reported 5,594 new cases on Tuesday, and another 2,692 on Wednesday between midnight and press time. The number of serious patients has risen to 622, including 162 who are intubated. The death toll hit 3,307.
“We see predictions,” said Health Ministry director-general Chezy Levy during an earlier interview with Channel 12. “If the predictions come true, somewhere in mid-January we will see 8,900 new cases per day.”
It is numbers like these that led Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, the head of Public Health Services, to tell the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee on Wednesday morning that Israel “is in a state of emergency.” She said that while it is “true that vaccination, I hope, will get us to a better place,” it is unlikely to help enough in the next two months, given the current state of infection.
The committee approved extending the state of emergency by two months until March 3, but only after accusing the doctor of populism and lack of transparency in a conversation reminiscent of so many others before.
Alroy-Preis fired back at the MKs who disagreed with her assessment of the situation and accused them of being “populist” themselves, and of minimizing the threat posed by the virus.
“I must say that I have a hard time with these attacks that attribute all sorts of manipulations to us,” Alroy-Preis responded. “We show data transparently.”
She added that the mortality rate in Israel rose 17% this year as a result of the pandemic.
The Knesset committee also approved the cancellation of the order requiring all Israelis returning from abroad to be quarantined in state-run coronavirus hotels.
Instead, the Knesset decided, in a vote of 8-3, that returnees will be isolated at home. Travelers will be required to take a test upon arrival back in the country and another one nine days after their return.
If Israelis do not have a suitable place to isolate, they can still quarantine at a hotel.
The decision came against the backdrop of comments made by Alroy-Preis, who told the committee that the Health Ministry was investigating Wednesday an incident in which 14 people on the same airplane coming from Dubai to Israel tested positive for corona.
She also said that only 3% of those people who are infected with the virus test positive at the airport, hence the need to isolate and take a second test.
According to Alroy-Preis, between 60 and 70% of returnees failed to observe home quarantine, which is why the coronavirus cabinet put in place earlier this month the order that all returning Israelis must quarantine in government-run hotels.
It was also because of fears over the spread of an especially infectious mutation of the coronavirus that has been prevalent in a number of countries, mainly the United Kingdom.
On Wednesday evening, Channel 12 reported that there were only six confirmed cases of the mutation in Israel.
The hotels have been plagued by problems, with those housed in them complaining about filthy rooms, inadequate food, and failure to provide medicine and other necessities. Residents have held protests and even tried to break out of the hotels by force. About half of the returning travelers had managed to convince the exceptions committee that entering these hotels would pose a hardship to them.
Finally, the silver lining of the vaccine campaign continues. Edelstein said that nearly 800,000 Israelis had been inoculated so far and that the country was upholding its goal of vaccinating around 150,000 people per day.
Some have called into question whether vaccination will slow down in January if not enough Pfizer vaccines arrive in time or because the health funds will need to give people their second doses and hence will not be able to jab as many first timers.
Edelstein said that it is possible that between mid-January and mid-February, the health funds will only inoculate around 50,000 people per day, but he said that is according to plans.
He added that he expects the general community to be able to start vaccinating in February and that by mid-March or April enough people should be immune to the virus that people could even take off their masks.
Until then, however, the Health Ministry is calling on people to exercise caution, including on New Year’s Eve, when mass gatherings usually take place.