Coronavirus: Lockdown likely to last at least four weeks

Ministers agree to allow school days to run according to routine during closure.

Medical staff receives vaccine in Ichilov Hospital, December 19, 2020 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Medical staff receives vaccine in Ichilov Hospital, December 19, 2020
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Before the lockdown has even started, Israelis were informed by health officials on Thursday that the latest lockdown was likely to last longer than two weeks.
“I do not believe that two weeks will be enough [to stop the spread of the virus],” coronavirus commissioner Prof. Nachman Ash said in an interview with the Hebrew website Ynet.
He said the government determined that it would evaluate the state of morbidity after two weeks to see if the country could reopen. If the number of new daily cases dropped to 1,000 or less, the lockdown would be lifted. If not, it will be extended another two weeks.
Originally, the Health Ministry proposed a 25-day lockdown.
Overnight Wednesday, the government approved a plan to shut down the country beginning on Sunday at 5 p.m. The closure includes a restriction on movement, as well as shuttering stores and leisure activities, among other things.
At first, ministers voted to open schools for pre-schoolers, kindergarteners and students in grades 1-4 and 11-12 until 1 p.m. each day. However, amid extreme pressure from parents and Education Minister Yoav Gallant, the outline was changed and schools will now operate as usual.
“We did this first of all so that these students would not miss school, and secondly, to make it easier for the parents,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said following the decision.
In the new plan, preschools and kindergartens will operate according to routine, as will the younger grades. The high schoolers will be broken into capsules and allowed to interact with up to three capsules. Teachers will be able to instruct up to four capsules.
Grades 5-10 are expected to move to distance learning. However, there is discussion that the outline could change when it goes for final approval in the Knesset early next week. Schools will not open in red and orange areas.
According to most health experts, there was no epidemiological value to closing schools at 13:00.
Nonetheless, the head of the Teachers’ Union, Yaffa Ben-David, is looking into if she could legally require the Health Ministry to vaccinate teachers within the next week, since they will be asked to interact with so many students during the outbreak and it could put them at risk.
"Educational institutions are safe and supervised, both for students and for education and teaching staff,” Gallant wrote on Facebook Thursday. “I will continue to fight for the vaccination of all teaching staff and to carry out testing inside educational facilities. For the continuation of a safe study routine for the future generations of the State of Israel."
Levy said during his briefing that although priority would still need to be given to the elderly and other high-risk populations, he envisioned that teachers could start vaccinating within a week.
The decision to allow more hours of schools came against the backdrop of rising infection. The country soared past 4,000 new cases on Wednesday, according to Health Ministry director-general Chezy Levy.
The ministry’s website was not updated by press time, as the increase in the number of coronavirus tests in recent days - around 90,000 - have caused a delay in reporting, Levy explained. As a result of the delay, people who are in isolation and waiting for a negative result to leave are still holed up.
Levy told a briefing that there were more than 750 people in the hospital and that Israel was on a “slippery slope” toward 800. Although the number of serious patients remains around 500, it is steadily growing.
The director-general said the reproduction rate (R - number of people a sick person infects) - is holding at 1.26 overall, and is 1.7 in the ultra-Orthodox sector.
Although only five verified cases of the British mutation have been verified in Israel thus far, according to the Health Ministry, Levy said in an interview with N12 Thursday evening that dozens of cases are being investigated, especially in the ultra-Orthodox community.
The mutation is about 70% more infectious than the original strain of the coronavirus and health officials believe it may be the cause for the rapid increase in cases among the ultra-Orthodox community.
Levy said that he believes the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines will be effective against the mutation and that if vaccination continues at the current pace and faster then the current lockdown will be Israel’s last.
Israel has thus far vaccinated more than 180,000 Israelis, the Health Ministry reported and is already inoculating as many as 65,000 people a day. Health Minister Yuli Edelstein called on Levy to put a plan together to enable some 100,000 people a day to be vaccinated by sometime next week.
Levy said that some four million Israelis should be vaccinated by the end of the first quarter of 2021.
“We are making Israel the world champion in vaccines,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. “I want to tell you that the combination of the tremendous vaccination campaign on the one hand, and a short and quick closure on the other, is what will allow us to get out of the coronavirus.”
He predicted that Israel would be the first country to surface from the pandemic, likely even within a few weeks.
“It’s a big blessing,” the prime minister said.
On Thursday, the Health Ministry approved extracting six doses from Pfizer's coronavirus vaccine, instead of the five. The move raises the amount of the Pfizer vaccine doses in Israel by 20%.
Pfizer manufactured its vaccine vials to contain more than the actual number of doses to minimize the risk of shortages.