Coronavirus in Israel: Cabinet to discuss extension of lockdown

'People coming back from abroad should quarantine in hotels' • a third of corona deaths in the first week of January due to hospital overcrowding

Passengers at the Departure hall at the Ben Gurion Airport, near Tel Aviv on December 14, 2020.  (photo credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)
Passengers at the Departure hall at the Ben Gurion Airport, near Tel Aviv on December 14, 2020.
(photo credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)
The coronavirus cabinet is going to meet on Tuesday to decide whether to extend the current reinforced lockdown which was supposed to finish at the end of this week.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu showed optimism, however, while visiting a health clinic in Beit Shemesh on Monday together with Health Minister Yuli Edelstein.
“The virus variants are raging in the world and there are countries that are talking about a lockdown that will last until April: This is not the case here,” Netanyahu said, adding that Israel might need to endure another short period of closure, but also that “we are on the verge of a great victory.”
In light of the crowding of the country’s hospitals, as well as the reproduction rate that has yet to drop to one, the cabinet meeting that was expected to take place on Wednesday has been moved up so that the government can determine next steps for tackling the crisis. Edelstein is going to ask that the lockdown be extended for another two weeks.
The cabinet is also expected to discuss measures to prevent Israelis returning from abroad to spread the virus. Among the options being considered is demanding that they present a negative coronavirus test as a condition for allowing them to re-enter the country, which is going to be the Health Ministry’s recommendation.
The cabinet is convening against the backdrop of a coronavirus third wave that is exacting a heavy toll on the country, where the death count stood at 4,005 and there were 1,130 patients in serious condition, 273 of whom are on ventilators as of Monday.
Highly contagious variants of the virus, including the British variant and the South-African variants, are considered key factors in the recent surge of cases, despite the success of the vaccination campaign. Preliminary studies indicate that the vaccine does have an effect in curbing the infection rate, and is also effective against the new variants.
On Monday, Dr. Roy Singer, Deputy Director of the Department of Epidemiology at the Health Ministry, stated that the level of antibodies measured in those who have received the Pfizer vaccine is higher than that of those who have recovered from the disease.
“I do not know if there is another such disease in which the vaccine will protect better than infection with the disease itself,” he said, speaking before the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee.
During their visit in Beit Shemesh, Netanyahu and Edelstein especially called on the ultra-Orthodox population to go and get vaccinated. The morbidity rate has been especially high in the haredi sector, with about 30% of the cases occurring there, according to Channel 12.
Moreover, about 10% or 15% of their education institutions have remained open in spite of the lockdown.
Israeli media reported that Netanyahu spoke with Yanki Kanievsky, the grandson of leading haredi Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, one of the most senior ultra-Orthodox leaders in the world, to ask for the rabbi’s support in keeping schools and yeshivot in the sector closed.
Some 2,116,257 Israelis had been vaccinated as of Monday morning, including 309,065 who have received the second dose of the vaccine. Some 5,616 new cases of COVID-19 were reported in the country on the same day, with 9.1% of tests returning positive, according to a Monday morning update by the Health Ministry.
While 9.1% is a record in the percentage of tests returning positive since the beginning of the pandemic, the number of tests was also lower than average.
The high number of COVID-19 cases and severe cases is also putting unprecedented strain on the health system.
According to research conducted by scientists from the Weizmann Institute and the Hebrew University, about a third of coronavirus deaths in the first week of January were due to hospital overcrowding and could have been avoided, Army Radio reported on Monday morning.
The team, led by Weizmann Prof. Eran Segal, compared the trends of the second and the third waves of the pandemic in Israel and found an excess of mortality of about 25% during the latter, according to the report.
Jerusalem is one of the cities struggling with especially high morbidity and number of hospitalized patients. In order to relieve the burden on its hospitals, as well as some facilities in the central part of the country, some of the coronavirus patients have been hospitalized at Jerusalem’s Herzog Medical Center, which specializes in geriatrics.
“Despite the heavy workloads we are facing, the Herzog Medical Center has stepped in to help other medical centers that are also experiencing exceptional workloads,” general manager Kobi Habib said.
Some 110 patients were hospitalized at Herzog as of Monday morning, 46 of whom were in serious condition.
In the meantime, according to Hebrew news outlet Kan, the Health Ministry is working on an outline to reopen the cultural sector in the coming weeks, allowing those who have received both shots of the vaccine, those who have recovered from the virus or those who present a negative test to attend cultural events.
Also on Monday morning, Edelstein announced that 24 additional security guards would be deployed at the mental health department of hospitals, in light of the increasing number of cases of violence against medical staff.
“We are committed to the safety of patients and medical staff,” said Edelstein. “In budget discussions in the next government, their security will be addressed even more broadly.”
Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman and Tzvi Joffre contributed to this report.