The Health Ministry will ask the government to extend the current lockdown for at least one extra week, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said on Tuesday as the number of patients in critical condition and on ventilators remains high and the hospital system faces an unprecedented workload.
The lockdown is currently set to be lifted on January 31. However, it is not clear when the cabinet will convene, as the meeting has become the latest point of contention between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz.
Some 8,680 new cases were registered on Monday with 9.8% of the 91,606 tests returning positive.
The most problematic data concerns the number of serious and ventilated patients – respectively 1179 and 305: while the figures appear to be trending downward, the decrease is much slower than health officials expected. Furthermore a record 74 people died from the virus since the previous update, bringing the death toll to 4,493.
“The changes are very slow this time,” Edelstein explained to The Jerusalem Post. “We are used to this idea that once the infamous R goes down, you really see the drop in the numbers. It is not happening today. The R goes down and still the descending scale is very, very slow.” The R rate – or reproduction rate - reflects the ability of the disease to spread.
“We still hope to see a better situation,” the minister added. “And let’s not forget that in parallel we will have many more people being vaccinated. Now we have a million with a second dose, probably 1.5 million by that time [when we will lift the lockdown], and that changes the situation for the better.”
Experts believe the severity of the situation is likely caused by the new variants of the virus that are emerging as more contagious than the original strain. In order to avoid more people infected with new variants to enter the country, Israel sealed its border on Monday, preventing travelers to enter or leave the country except for special circumstances.
The hope is that by maintaining the restrictions, the country will buy more time to immunize a larger percentage of the population and relieve the burden on the health system, in consideration that in some areas of the country, including Jerusalem, ambulances are often forced to wait hours to evacuate the sick.
Prime Minister Netanyahu was reportedly trying to convene the cabinet for a meeting on Tuesday to discuss additional measures to combat the continued infection rate but has met resistance from Gantz who insists that the Knesset first pass a law to increase the fines against people and institutions that violate the lockdown regulations.
Later in the day, Blue and White leader stated that he would not allow a meeting to discuss the lockdown before Thursday, in order to examine the trend in numbers before making a decision. Gantz made the announcement after meeting with a team of experts which advises Blue and White's ministers on COVID-19 related matters.
Close to 4,000,000 vaccination shots have been administered so far in Israel, Edelstein said on Tuesday. Out of those, 2.7 million shots were given as the first dose of the vaccine. Over 1.2 million people have already received both inoculations. While some 80% of at risk groups, including people over 60, have gotten al least the first shot, only 34% of those who work in education have vaccinated, a figure that Edelstein defined very worrisome.
Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman contributed to this report.