Israel on Thursday evening geared up for tightened lockdown measures set to take effect at midnight, with a top Health Ministry official already signaling the restrictions could remain in force longer than two weeks.
Many Israelis stocked up on groceries and police were to be deployed in large numbers to enforce the lockdown, which was approved late Wednesday by ministers as infection rates surge in Israel. The new rules will see schools closed and most commerce restricted, with tighter limitations on gatherings.
The measures will be in effect until January 21, though the Health Ministry’s acting head of public health warned it could “very well” be longer before they are eased.
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“The [case] numbers are doubling every two weeks,” Sharon Alroy-Preis told the Knesset’s Justice, Law and Constitution Committee, which approved the lockdown Thursday evening. “The pandemic is raging.”
She said the rise in COVID-19 patients hospitalized in serious condition was particularly worrying.
“The forecast of the seriously ill has gotten worse than what we expected and we’re in a catastrophe,” she said.
Health workers at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem move patients to the new coronavirus ward at the hospital on January 7, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
In updated figures published hours before the lockdown took effect, the Health Ministry said another 4,548 cases were confirmed since midnight, bringing the number of infections since the pandemic began to 470,151.
The death toll stood at 3,549.
The number of active cases rose to 63,965, with 872 people in serious condition, including 219 on ventilators. Another 267 Israelis were in moderate condition and the rest had mild or no symptoms.
According to the Health Ministry, 75,212 tests had been performed so far on Thursday, with six percent coming back positive.
The ministry said 7,855 new cases were confirmed Wednesday and 6.2% of cases returned positive, continuing a slight downward trend in daily infections and the test positivity rate, both of which peaked on Monday.
The tightened lockdown will take effect as Israel pushes on with its vaccination campaign. Some 1,593,000 people have now been vaccinated in Israel, but the healthcare system was facing a shortage of doses that temporarily forced health providers to slow the pace of new inoculations.
However, the first batch of vaccines from Moderna arrived earlier Thursday and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a “breakthrough” in talks with Pfizer, asserting Israel would receive enough vaccines to inoculate all Israelis over the age of 16 by the end of March.
“Victory is in sight,” he asserted.
He said the next shipment from Pfizer would arrive on Sunday, but didn’t specify the number of doses. Channel 12 news reported Thursday evening that a further 1 million doses were en route to the country.
Briefly noting the tightened lockdown measures set to take effect, Netanyahu urged all Israelis to adhere to the rules.
A man receives a COVID-19 vaccine in Jerusalem, on January 6, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Along with closing schools and nonessential businesses, the new rules will require all travelers returning from the United Kingdom and South Africa, where new strains of the virus have been spreading, to enter state-run hotels for their quarantine period. Returnees from all other countries will undergo virus tests at the airport before entering mandatory isolation at home.
Checkpoints will be set up on major highways and within towns and cities. The current rules — which have largely been ignored and under-enforced — already limit Israelis from venturing beyond a kilometer from their homes, except for essential reasons.
Coronavirus czar Nachman Ash, who is spearheading the national effort, said on Thursday, “This time we must ensure that all places in all sectors are closed. The outbreak in the ultra-Orthodox community is more significant. Full enforcement cannot be waived.”
Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox men from the Toldos Aharon Hasidic dynasty attend a wedding in Beitar Illit, violating coronavirus regulations, January 5, 2021. (Screenshot: Twitter)
At least two mass weddings were held in ultra-Orthodox communities on Tuesday despite the high infection rates. Consequently, several police officers were suspended while an inquiry was to be held over why one celebration, in the Beitar Illit settlement, was allowed to proceed.
Anonymous police officials told the Haaretz daily that officers wouldn’t take action against Haredi schools that remain open in violation of the lockdown.
Meanwhile, one of the most influential spiritual leaders of the ultra-Orthodox community urged his followers to heed the government lockdown regulations and the instructions from the medical establishment. On Thursday, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky said Haredi schools would close for “several days” during the lockdown.
Kanievsky has in the past ordered ultra-Orthodox schools to remain open as lockdown measures were in force.
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