Half of Israelis Now Live in 'Red' Areas With Highest Coronavirus Infection Rates

Number of 'red' communities doubled to 83 in one week, and additional 51 communities, with 2.5 million inhabitants, were coded orange, just one step down from red in the Health Ministry’s traffic-light-themed plan

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Jerusalem amid the pandemic, September 15, 2020.
Jerusalem amid the pandemic, September 15, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zweigenberg

A week after restrictions were imposed on 40 neighborhoods and communities with high coronavirus infection rates, in accordance with the Health Ministry’s traffic-light-themed plan, Israel is on its way to being fully “red.” On Tuesday, 83 locales with a total of 4 million residents – nearly half the country’s population – merited this classification, together with the harshest restrictions that it brings.

An additional 51 communities, with 2.5 million inhabitants, were coded orange, just one step down from red in the five-color scheme.

Sources in the Health Ministry, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Haaretz there are virtually no “green” cities left in Israel, and that 97 percent of populated areas are coded yellow or higher. During a meeting of the coronavirus cabinet Monday, the head of the ministry’s public health services, Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, said: ”Infection rates are doubling in 97 percent of populated areas, that is to say within just two days, turning them from green to red.”

A few days earlier, Health Ministry Director General Chezy Levy said the traffic light plan had become moot, and that Israel had missed the chance to halt the spread of the coronavirus through measures in infection hot spots.

On Monday, Israel had 4,764 new confirmed cases, a record high. Nearly 40,000 tests were conducted. There are now more than 40,000 people currently sick, and more than 1,000 people hospitalized, of whom 143 are on ventilators.

Reports submitted to decision-makers by the team of coronavirus czar Prof. Ronni Gamzu show a clear daily rise in infections and in the so-called R value, or the number of people that each infected person will infect in turn, on average.

In Jerusalem, for example, the R value rose from 1.3 on September 9 to 1.7 on September 14. In Afula, Bnei Brak, Holon, Kiryat Gat, Pardes Hannah, Ra’anana and Rishon Letzion, the number reached at least 2, and in some of these cities is now close to 3.

In many other cities, including Ashkelon, Be’er Sheva, Hadera, Herzliya, Hod Hasharon, Petah Tikva and Yavneh, the R value reached 1.5 within a week.

At this stage, it is clear to all the experts that Israel has lost control of the pandemic, and that critical delays in implementing Gamzu’s traffic-light plan put Israel on the path to the second full lockdown, which is scheduled to begin Friday.

A man wears a face mask against the coronavirus pandemic in Netanya Netanya, Israel, Monday, September 14, 2020. Credit: Ariel Schalit,AP

Prof. Idit Matot, who heads the “Barometer” team appointed by Gamzu to keep track of the case load at hospitals, tweeted Monday: “In recent weeks I joined [the government’s anti-pandemic program] and tried to effect change from within. Now, with the start of another lockdown, I feel deep disappointment. Lockdown is a disaster and doesn’t offer a solution but rather admission of failure, and I regret I couldn’t prevent the decision.

The traffic-light plan focusing on addressing the pandemic by focusing on local outbreaks based on standardized criteria, was first approved August 5 but only approved finally September 3 after being rejected three times for various reasons, particularly partisan interests.

Dr. Miri Mizrahi-Reuveni, head of the health division of Maccabi Health Services and a member of the Barometer team, said: “If we had implemented the traffic light plan on time, I think we would not have ended up with a general lockdown. We could have implemented the plan to divide the country by rate of infection, and implement the plan while making specific, local adaptations. Had the plan been approved and implemented a few weeks earlier, the lockdown would have been preventable. The situation as of now is that there are no ore green cities in Israel, and we still have the holiday period before us with trends that could further spread infections against the backdrop of the fear of a surge in the number of seriously ill.”

Many other public health officials share a sense of a missed opportunity, even though there was no guarantee the plan would have worked. Many believe there is no other reasonable way to halt the pandemic that would allow in parallel some carrying on with their routines. The behavior of the government in recent weeks, from the way it handled the annual pilgrimage to Uman, in Ukraine, to the cancellation of the full lockdown on red cities due to pressure from mayors of Haredi communities, has made many officials feel despondent as they discover time and again that public health concerns are pushed aside in favor of political or other interests.

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