COVID-19 czar: Exit from lockdown may be more gradual than anticipated

Over 1m. Israelis have received both vaccine doses, but number of serious cases remains high.

Medical worker prepares a COVID-19 vaccine injection, at a Clalit  vaccination center in Jerusalem, January 21, 2021 (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)
Medical worker prepares a COVID-19 vaccine injection, at a Clalit vaccination center in Jerusalem, January 21, 2021
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)
A three-stage plan to lift the lockdown in Israel has been outlined, but the timeline for its execution is not yet clear due to the continued high number of patients in serious condition, coronavirus commissioner Prof. Nachman Ash said on Monday.
There are currently more than 1,140 patients in serious condition.
“The first step will be to return to the situation that pre-existed the lockdown by opening the commercial sector and the education system according to a limited outline," Ash said at a press conference. "This will be followed by the other activities under the green label. For those, we will divide them in two types: those that are planned in advanced and are limited will resume earlier while activities on a larger scale will open later. The timing of these openings has not yet been determined. The first stage may be more limited in the face of the current severe morbidity in the hospitals.”
When asked if the current lockdown - which is due to end on January 31 - would be the last one, Ash said that while he had made such a promise in the past, the current situation forces him to be more careful.
“We must make sure that the health system is not overloaded for a long time, so we will have to open the economy more carefully than we thought a few weeks ago,” he pointed out.
Earlier in the day, Ash had said that there can be no promise that the current reinforced lockdown in the country will be lifted at the end of the month as planned.
“We have learned that making promises in this pandemic is not right; we will follow the data and see," Ash told 103 FM Radio, part of the Jerusalem Post Group. "Our desire is to reopen. We will see to what extent this can be done depending on the level of morbidity.”
"It is important to continue the vaccination campaign at great speed and reach the highest level of vaccination of the population as soon as possible," he said.
Over a million Israelis have received both shots of the coronavirus vaccine and about half of them are already eligible for the so-called "Green Vaccination Passport," the Health Ministry reported on Monday morning. The certification system is in the final stages of development and will be available to the public in another week, Ash stated.
However, while the country proceeds to inoculate at record speed – about 200,000 shots a day – and the number of new cases is trending downward, the overall situation is severe as the number of serious and ventilated patients, as well as daily deaths, remains high, straining the nation's hospitals.
Sourasky Medical Center (Ichilov) will close its ICU and turn it into a coronavirus ward due to the increase in infection, the Ynet news website reported on Monday.
In addition, a group of Israeli public hospitals are facing a deep financial crisis and have stopped accepting ambulances whose patients do not require life-saving treatment.
Negotiations between the government and the hospitals – which include Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center and Hadassah-University Medical Center, Netanya’s Laniado Medical Center, Bnei Brak’s Mayanei Hayeshua Medical Center and three facilities in Nazareth - have so far borne no fruit.
On Monday Hadassah’s head Prof. Zev Rotstein informed the Health Ministry that the hospital would no longer accept corona patients, due to the lack of equipment and medicines.  
All over the country, in several instances patients and ambulances are forced to wait for hours outside the hospitals waiting for a bed, according to reports in Israeli media.
Some 1,140 individuals are currently in serious condition, with 358 intubated. The death toll stands at 4,419, with 57 people passing away from the virus over the last 24 hours.
Ash expressed confidence that the vaccines are effective against the new highly infectious coronavirus variants, the spread of which prompted the government to approve a complete closure of the skies starting Monday at midnight.
Also additional data published by the Maccabi Health Fund later in the day offered hope on the effectiveness of the vaccine: only 0.01% of their members who are already a week after the second shot got infected – 20 people out of 128,600. Of those, only half developed light symptoms and no one was hospitalized.
The commissioner stated that about 40%-50% of daily cases are of the British variant. According to a preliminary analysis, the variant appears to also be 30% more deadly than the original strain of the virus, which might be contributing to the rise in serious cases and the fact that their number is declining at a slower pace than expected.
There were 4,868 new coronavirus cases in Israel in the past day, the Health Ministry reported.
Some 54,109 tests were administered, with around 9.3% of them returning a positive result.
The number of tests performed every day is also on decline. A spokesperson from the ministry explained to The Jerusalem Post that the drop in numbers is the effect of the new regulation that requires those who wish to be screened to obtain a referral from their health fund, as well as of the lockdown and the lower exposure to infected people.
Also on Monday Knesset approved in its first reading on Monday a legal measure to increase the fines imposed on Israelis who are violating the COVID-19 health regulations, with 52 in favor and 23 against.
Acting Justice Minister Benny Gantz on Monday met with Acting State Attorney Amit Aisman to encourage him to file more indictments against citizens who violate corona laws.
Until now, only 120 cases have been filed during the entire corona period, but Aisman said the issue would become the state prosecution's top priority.
Yonah Jeremy Bob and The Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.