It’s the holiday of freedom and the State of Israel is locked down.
The government approved additional restrictions on Tuesday that will keep Israelis at home during Passover, as the number of novel coronavirus victims climbed to more than 9,000 and a 37-year-old man became the country’s youngest COVID-19 victim.
Until April 12, there will be no public transportation, only cabs. Israelis cannot travel more than 100 meters from home, including to walk their dogs. The only exceptions are that divorced parents can transport their children and people can still go out to help in the case of emergencies.
While food stores will remain open, and on Wednesday morning people can shop for food in their own neighborhoods, beginning at 3 p.m. on Wednesday, with few exceptions, they are asked not to travel or shop at all.
Jerusalem will be divided into seven districts and traffic between them will be restricted, unless it’s for an essential need. Some 45 roadblocks have been erected across the country and police are enforcing these regulations, empowered to prevent travel and asking people to supply ID and information about their comings and goings.
The IDF said that despite the new government regulations, there will be unlimited military traffic in cities that are not under complete lockdown, and parents of soldiers will be able to pick them up. The military said it is allowing some soldiers to leave their bases for Passover, allowing them to spend it with their family.
The new restrictions come in place as the death toll climbed to 65 on Tuesday, including the country’s youngest victim, a 37-year-old from central Israel. Suffering from multiple preexisting conditions, he was treated at the Rabin Medical Center-Hasharon Campus.Four more people died Wednesday morning, bringing the country's total number of victims to 69.Of those infected, 149 are in critical condition, including 117 who are intubated. The Health Ministry tested 7,250 people on Monday, but according to the National Security Council, only 1,600 on Tuesday.
In addition to the travel restrictions, the Health Ministry has stipulated that all people over the age of six must wear masks in public beginning on Sunday.
Overnight, the Knesset passed in its final reading of legislation releasing approximately NIS 16 billion of additional funding that will be available for the National Insurance Institute. A further NIS 40b. will be available to fulfill additional promises made in the government’s financial aid package published last week, including a NIS 8b. loan fund for small businesses. In addition, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that soldiers, seniors, people with disabilities and parents of young children would receive NIS 500 grants for Passover.
On Tuesday, Health Ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman Tov told Channel 12 that when the number of new infections becomes “dozens per day,” restrictions can begin to lighten.
A report nonetheless published by the Knesset coronavirus task force on Tuesday heavily criticized the state’s management of the crisis, rolling out a set of recommendations to help citizens emerge from the current challenge.
Among the commission’s recommendations – divided into categories: policy, health system functionality, second-wave preparation, exit strategy, local authorities and economy – include making changes to testing policies and establishing a national crisis-management body.
The commission met for nearly 29 hours with 73 relevant leaders from across the health and other related fields. Its recommendations were approved by a vote of six to zero.
The report highlighted a number of gaps in the current management of the crisis, including that it was unclear whether the Health Ministry’s decision to limit the number of coronavirus screenings conducted per day was due to a medical philosophy or because “there were simply not enough test kits and our laboratories were not prepared.”
The report noted that there were contradictory statements made regarding the effectiveness of the use of masks and questioned whether this was because there were not sufficient masks to require a countrywide protection policy.
It pointed out that the Health Ministry admitted it was aware of the coronavirus threat as early as January 20, but made no efforts to procure additional ventilators until mid-March, and that no new ventilators have been brought in to the country as of March 26.
It further detailed that the focus on the number of ventilators is misleading, since the machine alone cannot save a patient, but a team of qualified medical professionals are needed – and the country lacks trained staff.
Moreover, the report pointed out that decisions were made in a limited forum – by the prime minister and officials from the Health and Finance ministries – and that despite the existence of well-known emergency protocols being established by the Defense Ministry, no similar protocol was established to manage the coronavirus outbreak.
The report recommended that a crisis-management body be established as soon as possible.
In the realm of testing, the commission said testing should not be limited to people who are experiencing disease symptoms, as is currently the case -– except for a relatively small number of monitoring tests. Rather, it said, three main groups should be checked regularly, in cycles of one to several days and with a fixed percentage of tests, for at-risk groups: populations at risk (elderly people, people with background illnesses), medical staff and staff dealing with at-risk populations.
The commission recommended a differential isolation policy that would not only cover populations at risk, but also geographical risk centers, such as Bnei Brak and other communities, where there are unusually large outbreaks of the disease.
“The peripheral damage from a complete halt to any activity unrelated to the coronavirus may eventually be worse even than the plague itself,” the report stated. “The commission believes that the needs of the economy and society require, immediately after Passover, changes in the prohibitions against movement and work… Even in the absence of an overall ‘exit strategy,’ continuing the current policy could bring us to a situation where the hard and dead numbers will remain low on a world-class level, but the damage to the economy and society will be irreparable, leading in the long run to even loss of life.”
At the same time, Israel must prepare for a second wave of infection as soon as possible, according to the report. The commission’s research noted that it is likely that even if the coronavirus begins to spread less during the summer months, it is expected to come back in full force next winter.
Anna Ahronheim contributed to this report.