The cabinet meeting that was expected to take place on Wednesday has been moved up to Tuesday so that the government can determine next steps for tackling the coronavirus crisis.
Health officials will recommend extending the lockdown by another week, coronavirus commissioner Prof. Nachman Ash said Sunday during a press briefing, given the high level of infection, a reproduction rate that has not yet dropped to one and the crowding in the country’s hospitals – all of this despite the lockdown.
There were 5,060 new cases of the virus diagnosed on Saturday, the Health Ministry reported Sunday evening, with 7.2% of those screened receiving positive results. Among the sick were 1,177 in serious condition, including 282 who were intubated.
The death toll hit 4,005 around 11 p.m. on Sunday.
“In recent days there has been a lot of pressure on the health system,” Ash said during the briefing. “There are about 1,200 critically ill patients, there is 85% occupancy in the various coronavirus wards, and hospitals are lowering elective activity.”
“There is a slowdown of the increase in the number of verified people, but we still do not see an effect on the number of patients in serious condition,” he said.
The reproduction rate (the “R,” or number of people each sick person infects) has dropped, but it has not yet fallen below one, the number needed to open schools and other parts of the economy, Ash said.
“The direction is encouraging,” but “the chances of us recommending an extension to the lockdown are high,” he said.
At the start of the cabinet meeting on Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: “We are in a close race right now between the spread of the disease with the mutations and vaccines. I believe that with the cooperation of all the citizens of Israel, we will win this race.”
“We will need to get a gauge of the state of the disease and whether an additional limited time period is required [for the lockdown],” he said. “We will make this decision at a cabinet meeting on Tuesday, at the latest on Wednesday, and we will announce it accordingly.”
Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein are expected to back the extended lockdown. However, Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz has said there is no point in continuing the ongoing lockdown unless all violators are treated equally.
Gantz singled out haredim (ultra-Orthodox) and Israeli-Arabs as the most prominent violators. His comments came amid reports that haredi schools were continuing to operate in Jerusalem, Bnei Brak and other parts of the country despite a government decision to shut down the entire education system.
“Whoever opens a Talmud Torah [haredi elementary school]; whoever prays in a synagogue, a mosque, or a church; whoever meets with a large number of people – is putting the lives of others in danger,” Gantz said.
“The law in Tel Aviv, Shfaram, Beitar Illit and Ashdod is the same law,” he said. “All should abide by the rules. If the law enforcement is not equal, there is no use continuing with the closure.”
While visiting the Alon Coronavirus Command Center at IDF Home Front Command headquarters near Ramle on Sunday, Gantz said he would reevaluate his position regarding the continuance of the current closure later this week. He also said he supports reopening the education system before anything else.
Opening the economy is also directly tied to Israel’s vaccination campaign.
So far, the Health Ministry reported, more than two million people have received at least one dose of the Pfizer vaccine, including almost 270,000 who have gotten both doses.
“We’re bringing more vaccines,” Netanyahu said. “I hope that today we will vaccinate about 200,000 people, and so we will continue during the week.”
On Friday, the Health Ministry announced that vaccines were available for people 45 years old and up, which led to long lines and busy phone lines at Israel’s health funds on Sunday. Pictures on the Internet showed people in crowded lines waiting to get their first or second doses, some of them without appointments.
Leumit Health Care Services announced it expected the number of people receiving vaccines would hit a peak this week and continue. It said it has opened dozens of more stations for its tens of thousands of policyholders and was calling on them to get vaccinated.
One week after people receive the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine, they are exempt from having to enter isolation if they are in contact with a sick patient, Ash said. The first people would have received this exemption on Sunday.
“Right now, this is the only benefit until we start using the green passport and open up the economy,” he said.
The Health Ministry is fine-tuning a computer system to print “vaccination certificates” that will be able to be accessed and printed by anyone who is eligible in the coming days, Ash said.
“The system is undergoing final tests… and then will be implemented,” he said.
However, discussion over the details of the country’s green passports has been delayed. Constitution, Law and Justice Committee chairman MK Yakov Asher (United Torah Judaism) on Sunday said discussions on formulating a solution for the legal issues presented by the green passports would be delayed until Wednesday at Edelstein’s request.