Israel edges closer to 4,000 coronavirus deaths

Cabinet to convene only on Wednesday to decide on extending lockdown.

Jerusalem streets during coronavirus lockdown in Israel, January 2021 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Jerusalem streets during coronavirus lockdown in Israel, January 2021
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
More than two million Israelis have been vaccinated - 205,000 with both doses - but still the Health Ministry plans to push to extend the lockdown by another week.
The cabinet will convene on Wednesday to discuss the Health Ministry’s proposal; the ministry claims that another week is needed to get the reproduction rate down to one. The reproduction rate (R) is the number of people a sick person infects.
Blue and White and haredi (ultra-Orthodox) ministers, however, are reportedly against the plan. Blue and White wants a commitment that haredi schools will be closed and the haredim want their schools to open. Blue and White ministers also want to make a final decision based on how many at-risk people have been vaccinated with both doses by the end of the week.
Recall, the lockdown started on Thursday, January 7 at midnight and is due to be lifted this coming Thursday, January 21, at the same time, meaning whatever decision is made on Wednesday will be finalized at the last minute.
Meanwhile, the number of new cases per day remains high and the death toll is climbing.
On Saturday night, Israel edged closer to 4,000 people dead from the virus. With 44 people dead over the weekend, the death toll was 3,943 at press time.
After four days in a row of more than 9,000 new cases per day, the Health Ministry reported Saturday night that only 8,013 new cases were verified on Friday. However, as opposed to the more than 120,000 people screened on weekdays, only 95,581 people were tested Friday and the percentage of positive cases climbed from 7.7% to 8.6%.
There were 1,082 people in serious condition, among them a 30-year-old woman who is 31-weeks pregnant with her fifth child.
She was rushed from her Jerusalem home to Beilinson hospital in Petah Tikvah early Friday after her condition took a turn for the worse. She was ultimately intubated. On Saturday night, the hospital said that the mother’s situation remained “unstable and life-threatening.”
Doctors were weighing whether to deliver the baby.
Moreover, four more cases of the South African variant were discovered in Israel, the Health Ministry reported Saturday night. In total 12 cases have been discovered in the country.
According to the testing done in the country’s central laboratory, the four cases were brought into the country via travelers returning from the United Arab Emirates who tested positive for coronavirus upon arrival at Ben-Gurion Airport.  
Last week, the Health Ministry announced that it was recommending that anyone returning to the country from Brazil enter quarantine in a coronavirus hotel after a new mutation was discovered to be emanating from that country.
Prof. Eran Segal, a computational biologist with the Weizmann Institute of Science, posted on Twitter on Friday about a new outbreak in Manaus, Brazil, where according to serological tests 75% of the population had already had the virus, which should have meant the majority of the population is immune.
“There is concern that this is a result of the Brazilian strain spreading there that may have managed to elude antibodies from people who recovered from the previous strain,” Segal wrote. “Worrying, but not yet clear.”
The various mutations worry health officials when it comes to lifting the lockdown, though most research has so far indicated that the Pfizer vaccine is effective against them.
Nonetheless, several countries, including the United Kingdom, France and Denmark, have acted in recent days to reduce the number of infected people entering their countries by requiring negative coronavirus tests and isolation.
Israel has yet to make such a move, but Channel 12 reported Saturday night that the prime minister was considering moving forward a plan to require all returnees - Israelis included - to bring with them a negative coronavirus test that was taken no more than 72 hours before arrival.  
The hope is that these measures will be short lived, as more Israelis vaccinate.
Speaking to Channel 12 over the weekend, former coronavirus commissioner Prof. Ronni Gamzu said he believes “we are in the final stages of the coronavirus.”
His words echoed those of Segal, who has been advising the government through the pandemic. Segal wrote on Twitter Friday that the number of coronavirus patients over the age of 60 who become seriously ill has declined by about 25%. He also said that cities with higher vaccination rates have fewer critically ill patients, too.
“This may be the effect of the vaccines,” he wrote, “although we have reached such a percentage in the past so there may be other explanations.”
In addition, he said in Twitter posts on Friday that there does seem to be a halt in morbidity. But he said Israel would have to wait a few more days to see that the infection rate stabilizes and even begins to decline before making any decisions based on this data.
The ministry is also weighing what specific criteria to use this time around to determine when Israel should exit the lockdown. As noted, it seems clear that the reproduction rate will need to be one or less. However, the health teams will also be looking at the number of serious cases - rather than total cases per day - and, of course, the rate of vaccination.
Israelis as young as 45 will be eligible to receive the coronavirus vaccine beginning this week, the Health Ministry announced Friday.  Eligible Israelis can contact their health funds to schedule an appointment.
During a visit to the Arab town of Sakhnin on Saturday, coronavirus commissioner Prof. Nachman Ash called on the community to go and get the jab.
“Tomorrow, we are starting with people over the age of 45. So, I call on all of you in Sakhnin to come and get vaccinated,” Ash said. “I also call on teachers, educational staff, preschool teachers - come and get vaccinated.”
He said in a public message that any fears of vaccination are unfounded, noting that the side effects, even of the second dose which is known to cause slightly more side effects than the first, are mild like fever or aches and pains and they go away within a day.
“The sickness is much more difficult and dangerous” than the vaccine, Ash stressed.
Health Ministry officials have hinted that when around two million Israelis have received both doses of the vaccine schools will be able to open up along with more of the economy, since this would cover the majority of the country’s elderly and at-risk population.
“We have not seen anywhere in the world such a phenomenon where the public trusts in the vaccine and is coming out to get vaccinated,” Gamzu told Channel 12. “All the residents of Israel’s nursing homes have been vaccinated and soon all people between the ages of 40 and 50 [will be vaccinated, too]. With this kind of immunization rate, I do not believe we will see another lockdown.”