Netanyahu: Easing restrictions will halt if COVID infection keeps spiking

3.3% of those screened on Saturday tested positive * Galilee Medical Center head: Third wave is around the corner

Shoppers line up at stores in Jerusalem as Israel continues the exit from the coronavirus lockdown, Nov. 10, 2020 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Shoppers line up at stores in Jerusalem as Israel continues the exit from the coronavirus lockdown, Nov. 10, 2020
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The coronavirus has put Israel “in danger,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday, and “if necessary, we will halt the continued easing of restrictions and even tighten those we have already given.”
Speaking at the opening of the cabinet meeting, on a day the Health Ministry reported that 3.3% of those screened for the novel virus tested positive, he said: “We are constantly evaluating the data and measures to ease restrictions that we have enacted.”
“I must tell you that our morbidity situation, relative to [other] OECD member states – countries that we are always compared to and to which we compare ourselves – is good,” Netanyahu said. “We have 9,500 active cases, which is much less per capita than almost all of these countries. However, we must maintain this.”
A report by the research division of the Intelligence Ministry, which was reviewed by The Jerusalem Post, said the country is faced with two options: two short lockdowns – one at the end of December that would last through the beginning January (over Hanukkah and Christmas) and one at the end of March (including Passover) – or one longer lockdown that would last four to eight weeks and include Purim and Passover.
The report was revealed by N12.
“We are fighting a very difficult pandemic that has now claimed from us around 2,800 lives,” Netanyahu said. “We must do everything to prevent the situation from worsening, which could bring us to even harsher places – even harsher than we have known up until now.”
The percentage of people screened who tested positive on Friday was once again the highest in a month – up from an average of around 2% last week. When the tests done as part of the random survey are removed, the 3.3% figure spikes to 3.9%.
In total, 573 new cases were diagnosed out of 17,520 tests, the Health Ministry reported. The death toll was 2,864 at last count.
For three days in a row, last Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, more than 1,000 new cases were diagnosed per day.
There has been a consistent increase in the number of new cases, the Coronavirus National Information and Knowledge Center, which is overseen by the IDF and the Health Ministry, reported, adding that it expects the number to continue rising. The increase in the number of people tested daily could not fully account for the spike in new cases, it said.
The reproduction rate – the number of people each sick person infects – is also climbing. On Sunday, the Health Ministry reported an average rate of 1.16. The rate is 1.18 in the Arab sector, 1.12 in the general sector and 0.96 in the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) sector.
There are now 14 red cities and 24 orange cities, the Health Ministry reported.
In a report presented by coronavirus commissioner Nachman Ash on Sunday, the number of new patients from the Arab sector who are being hospitalized in serious condition and at a very young age is climbing.
A 41-year-old is being treated at Emek Medical Center in Afula, a 48-year-old at Hadassah-University Medical Center in Jerusalem, a 40-year-old at Baruch Padeh Medical Center in Poriya (near Tiberias), a 68-year-old at Holy Family Hospital in Nazareth, a 54-year-old at EMMS Nazareth Hospital, a 57-year-old at Carmel Medical Center in Haifa and a 52-year-old at Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer – all of them in serious condition.
“The situation is not good,” Ash stressed. “Young, seriously ill patients indicate that morbidity is prevalent in the sector in a way that endangers the lives of the residents of Arab cities.”
He called on those who return from abroad to enter isolation, after a report on Saturday night showed that two-thirds of those returning from red states who are supposed to enter isolation violate it, according to Health Ministry data revealed by N12. At the top of the list of countries from which infected patients are returning are Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria.
Masad Barhoum, director-general of Galilee Medical Center in Nahariya, echoed Ash’s statements in a direct message to the Arab community he serves.
“People returning from red countries like Turkey, entering and leaving the Palestinian territories – it is a recipe for catastrophe,” he said.
Barhoum said he had pressed for the government to increase fines to stop illegal weddings, perhaps the largest catalyst for the Arab community’s spike in infection.
“As a member of the advisory committee to the director-general of the Health Ministry, I thought, along with many of my committee members, that imposing fines of NIS 5,000 would not cause deterrence,” he said. “When it comes to a fine of NIS 50,000, the same person would think twice. Unfortunately, my idea was not accepted, and I think it was a mistake.”
Ash’s and Barhoum’s statements came only days after the country moved to open 15 malls and seven museums as part of a pilot program. The malls were overcrowded on Black Friday, and images of people in large groups, on top of each other in long lines, filled social media.
“Mistakes were made in launching the pilot program,” Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch said Sunday morning in an interview with Kan News.
“Some of this is our fault,” he said. “We created the crowding in the malls.”
Late Saturday night, Health Ministry director-general Chezy Levy, Ash and other health officials met to discuss if some changes might need to be made to the program. Discussions centered on decreasing the number of people allowed relative to floor space. Currently, one person is allowed per seven square feet; one per 15 sq. ft. is being considered. However, to make that shift, officials would need to vote to approve the change. As such, nothing will change on Monday.
Meanwhile, students in grades 10 through 12 returned to school on Sunday without mandatory testing in place for teachers and students.
“It is not right to open schools without carrying out orderly and serious testing,” Barhoum said. “Everywhere in the world where the education system has been opened, it has been proven that children have spread infection.”
“Schools alone will lead to lockdown,” former Health Ministry director-general Gabi Barbash told the Post. “The question is not if; it’s how long until.”
Barhoum also said he is convinced that a third wave is around the corner and that it will be particularly difficult, partly due to the combination of winter and the cases of influenza and other respiratory diseases that come with it.
“Although there is relative calm at the moment, and the level of morbidity in the country is low, once it rises – and I have no doubt it will rise – it will be like a fire in a field of thorns,” Barhoum said.
“There is no reason to think there will not be a third wave,” he told the Post. “And I think we are going to have a third lockdown.”