Coronavirus in Israel: Nation barrels toward closure as infections soar

Cabinet to approve lockdown plan Sunday • Hospitals warn of overload • 4,000 diagnosed

A man carries his shopping bags and wears a face mask in a street in Ashkelon while Israel tightened a national stay-at-home policy following the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Ashkelon, Israel March 20, 2020. (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
A man carries his shopping bags and wears a face mask in a street in Ashkelon while Israel tightened a national stay-at-home policy following the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Ashkelon, Israel March 20, 2020.
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
Israel is heading toward a nationwide lockdown, the coronavirus cabinet ruled Thursday night, as the country passed more than 4,000 COVID-19 diagnoses in a single day, breaking a record.
Ministers met for close to six hours on Thursday, deciding to impose a closure on the country beginning next Friday ahead of Rosh Hashana.
The ministers argued late into the night with coronavirus commissioner Prof. Ronni Gamzu about the scope of the restrictions.
The final outline will be brought to a vote by the full cabinet on Sunday before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flies to the United States.
Gamzu, who since taking up his position nearly two months ago has been opposed to a lockdown, presented a plan to the government that would nearly close down the country through the High Holy Days.
The outline expected to be approved on Sunday, will place the country in a full lockdown for two weeks starting next Friday.
During the first two weeks,   from September 18 until October 1, people will be confined to a 500m radius of their homes, all businesses will be closed – including retail and restaurants – and the education system will shut down. Essential services will continue, including pharmacies and grocery stores, which will remain open.
Starting October 1, the 500m restriction is expected to be lifted, and 50% of employees are planned to be allowed to return to work. However, retail establishments and recreational activities will remain closed. A decision on reopening schools will be made at a later date.
Restrictions will be eased further starting October 15 when Gamzu’s traffic light plan is expected to be reinstated.
People will be allowed to gather to pray, in accordance with red zone rules – 10 people inside and up to 20 outside.
The Finance Ministry has predicted that a closure could cost the economy up to NIS 10 billion.
As the idea of a lockdown approached on Thursday, Defense Minister Benny Gantz said he called on the IDF to prepare, including calling up more reservists to assist in closed cities with distributing  food and transporting sick to hotels.
But Finance Minister Israel Katz, Science and Technology Minister Yizhar Shay and Economy Minister Amir Peretz pushed for a less restrictive plan that would still allow people to work.
The Finance Ministry said in a statement on Wednesday that “there can be no total closure under any circumstances, as the damage will be enormous and it will be difficult to repair.”
On Thursday, the Military Intelligence’s Coronavirus National Information and Knowledge Center released a report verifying what Health Ministry director-general Chezy Levy said Wednesday in an interview with N12: If the country locks down, then the closure must last for about a month.
“Closure is a proven tool to reduce infection,” the report said, “when it lasts long enough.”
The report indicated that with the current level of infection, it would take well over 90 days to reach an average 400 patients per day.
A closure is not what the country expected when Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein chose Gamzu to be the coronavirus commissioner. Since his first days, Gamzu stressed: “I want more organization; partnership from the bottom.”
During his first interviews he expressed the hope that he, together with the people, could stop the coronavirus. He told the public in August he expected that within a couple of months, Israel would have surfaced from the shadow of the COVID-19.
“We are trying not to shut down the economy,” Gamzu repeated. “Closure is not the only way to treat coronavirus.”
However, on Thursday, it was Gamzu who first raised the red flag on behalf of the healthcare system and said that “dramatic steps” would have to be taken.
“Prof. Gamzu and the heads of the hospitals came to the coronavirus cabinet meeting today and waved a red flag,” the prime minister said in a video message late Thursday. “They said that although the number of serious patients in Israel is still relatively low, it can change in a snap. Then, the hospitals will not be able to treat them, and there will be many serious patients and many dead.”
He said that Gamzu and the other medical professionals stressed that “action must be taken. But we must not take action without thinking. We cannot do it recklessly, so it takes a long time to make decisions. On the other hand, we had to make them early enough so that we can all get organized for the holidays, Yom Kippur and before that, of course, Rosh Hashanah.
“I believe we will find a solution that will stop the disease and allow us to surface from these restrictions gradually and responsibly.” he said.
Gamzu reportedly said at the meeting that the numbers are rising much faster than he expected, despite the night curfews placed earlier this week on red zones. He said the police are not succeeding to stop those who break directives and the public is not listening.
More than 90 people died in the last week, bringing the death toll to 1,090 as of Friday evening. There were 979 patients being treated in the hospital – 486 in serious condition, including 146 who were intubated. On Thursday, 4,217 people tested positive for the virus.
The number of sick patients in the haredi and Arab communities is exceptionally high and rising, with an increase in cases throughout the country – not just in red cities. Moreover, Health Ministry data has been showing that the number of cases of coronavirus in people over the age of 60 is growing; in the beginning of the second wave the virus appeared to be infecting mostly young people.
It is likely that if steps are not taken, then the numbers will spike even more, because the school system opened up 10 days ago. The Education Ministry reported a week after school started that some 6.5% of Israeli students had coronavirus and 1% of schools were already shuttered by the virus.
Gamzu has said the holidays could also negatively affect the infection rate.
“Holidays are a time of many gatherings,” the commissioner said Tuesday at his weekly press briefing. “There will be eating [together] and therefore there is a danger of increased infection.”
As Gamzu expressed during his first address to the nation, the public has lost trust in its decision makers. Seven weeks since he took the position, the people are still not following guidelines.
Medical professionals, including Gamzu, have stressed that the traffic light plan is meant to be a virus management plan – it is not effective enough to bring down infection, especially when the system that the IDF is building to help contact trace and cut off the chains of infection is not yet ready. Gamzu said that it would not be fully operational until November 1.
“The state must take all necessary measures to stop the virus,” said Dr. Nail Alias, head of the French hospital in Nazareth on Thursday, where there is a high level of infection. “There are many people guilty of causing the spread of the virus – the population that did not follow the necessary rules and the state that did not use all the tools at its disposal to eradicate the pandemic, as well as local authorities.
“Now, we need to use all the tools at our disposal to cut the infection chains and stop the virus,” he concluded.