Three weeks into lockdown, rampant mutated strains keep infections sky-high

Bozz District

Some three weeks into Israel’s tightened nationwide lockdown, with more-infectious mutated coronavirus strains running rampant, the outbreak is continuing at full force, shattering even the most pessimistic of predictions. The Health Ministry said Wednesday morning that 7,737 new cases were confirmed the previous day, with a positivity rate of 9.6 […]

Some three weeks into Israel’s tightened nationwide lockdown, with more-infectious mutated coronavirus strains running rampant, the outbreak is continuing at full force, shattering even the most pessimistic of predictions.

The Health Ministry said Wednesday morning that 7,737 new cases were confirmed the previous day, with a positivity rate of 9.6 percent. It was one of the highest rates seen in recent months, though it is noteworthy that the ministry recently limited testing only to those with referrals from a doctor.

Even in absolute numbers, infections are not going down and the number of active cases has risen in recent days from below 70,000 earlier this week to 76,708 on Wednesday.

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Another persistent figure that hasn’t dropped for many days is serious cases, which have been hovering around the 1,200 mark and stood at 1,141 on Wednesday, putting immense strain on hospitals, many of which have converted various wards into COVID-19 wards and some of which have said they cannot handle more patients at this time.

The serious cases included 393 in critical condition and 311 on ventilators, according to the ministry.

The total case tally since the start of the pandemic was 617,168, and the death toll was 4,513, more than 25 percent of whom have died this month alone.

Hospital staff wearing safety gear, as they work in the coronavirus ward of Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem on January 19, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The current lockdown restrictions, which came into effect on January 8, have shuttered all but essential businesses and also closed the culture industry and the entire education system, except for special education institutions. Indoor gatherings are limited to five people.

Even Israel’s rapid vaccination campaign — the fastest in the world per capita — has yet to yield the expected results. The Health Ministry said Wednesday that 2,768,202 people of the country’s population of 9.3 million have received at least one dose of the vaccine, with 1,377,803 getting both shots. More than 200,000 got shots on Tuesday, of whom some 80,000 got their first dose and 120,000 got their second.

On Tuesday evening, both Channel 12 news and the Kan public broadcaster quoted unnamed Health Ministry officials as saying all of their forecasts have been proven wrong. Officials do not see a possibility of reopening schools, cultural venues or businesses under the current conditions.

The lockdown rules are currently set to expire on Sunday, but the ministry is expected to push for an extension of the current restrictions until infections start going down considerably.

Israelis stand in line for COVID-19 vaccinations at a Health Center in Rehovot, central Israel on January 26, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

‘Playing with human lives’

Meanwhile, the Knesset was meeting Wednesday to discuss and vote on a bill that would hike fines on institutions that violate the lockdown restrictions, a thorny issue that has been threatening to thwart the extension of the lockdown altogether and has inflamed tensions within the battered coalition.

The bill passed its first reading earlier this week, but the ultra-Orthodox parties have fumed over the fact that it seeks to double current fines. Many institutions in the Haredi sector have continued to operate throughout the lockdown despite the fines, angering critics who say that current level of enforcement isn’t enough.

Attempts by police to escalate enforcement were met with several days of violent riots by extremist ultra-Orthodox sects, with mobs torching a bus, ambushing cops and holding mass demonstrations without social distancing.

Pressured by his Haredi allies — who have threatened to nix their political partnership with him ahead of the elections — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has sought to tone down the bill and ensured the legislation went to a Knesset committee controlled by the United Torah Judaism party before its two final readings scheduled for Thursday.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, speaks with MK Miki Zohar during a Likud faction meeting in the Knesset, January 25, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The version to be discussed is a compromise proposed by coalition whip Miki Zohar, a staunch Netanyahu ally, according to which fines will be raised but not doubled, institutions will only be forced to close after receiving two fines, and lower-ranking officers will not have the authority to hand out fines.

Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party is vehemently opposed to the compromise, arguing that it will cause the continuation of the alleged tougher enforcement in non-Haredi areas compared to Haredi areas, where infection rates are much higher.

The party has said that unless the bill doubling the fines is passed without change, Blue and White will oppose the extension of all lockdown restrictions beyond next Sunday. That discussion is planned for Thursday.

Likud, which depends on the ultra-Orthodox parties in the upcoming March 23 elections, hasn’t budged.

Zohar on Thursday accused Blue and White of being “willing to endanger the health of all Israeli citizens for its election campaign.”

A Blue and White source quoted by Hebrew-language media responded saying that “Likud is again caving to its Haredi allies and putting political interest above the public interest. Instead of bringing the original law agreed upon by the government, it is bringing a neutered law that won’t allow effective enforcement of the lockdown they are demanding. We won’t allow them to continue to toy with human lives.”

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