With Rise in Infections, Health Officials Weigh Slowing Down Israel's COVID Lockdown Exit Plan

The third stage of reopening, set to begin on March 7, would have pupils in grades 7 to 10 returning to the classroom in cities with low infection rates, but the Health Ministry might seek to delay it

Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati
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Israelis dressed in costumes at the Machane Yehuda market in Jerusalem for Purim.
Israelis dressed in costumes at the Machane Yehuda market in Jerusalem for Purim.Credit: Emmanuel Dunand / AFP
Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

The Health Ministry is worried by the rise in the infection coefficient for COVID-19, as well as by the general increase in new infections, particularly given the numerous violations of the guidelines that took place over the Purim holiday. As a result, the ministry is reevaluating how and when to introduce the next stage of the lockdown exit that was meant to start at the beginning of next week.

During the coming days, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, ministry professionals and the experts of the Magen Israel program will be holding discussions on possible recoomendations to issue about how to move forward.

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The third stage of exit from the lockdown meant to begin on March 7 would have pupils in grades 7 to 10 returning to the classroom in green and yellow cities (those with relatively low infection rates), as well as in borderline orange locales with a weighted “traffic light” score of 7 or lower, and where at least 70 percent of those over 50 have been vaccinated.

The third stage is also meant to include the opening of small restaurants and cafes, and larger restaurants via reservations; the reopening of hotels, banquet halls and attractions to those with a green pass which proves they’ve been vaccinated against or recovered from COVID19, and allowing gatherings of up to 20 people indoors and 50 outdoors.

Ministry sources say the violations and mass gatherings over the past few days have not yet been reflected in the infection statistics, but the fact that the coefficient (the “R” number) had already risen to 0.99 before Purim raises concern that there could be a new surge of infection. An “R” number higher than one means the virus is spreading.

“During the next few days we’ll have to see how the Purim events influenced morbidity and decide about the next [exit] stage,” a senior Health Ministry official told Haaretz. Options include postponing the third stage or easing measures more slowly, a ministry source said.

The condition for moving forward with the third stage is at least four million residents having received both doses of the vaccine; reaching a 95 percent vaccination rate among those 50 and above; an infection coefficient of less than 1 and getting the number of the seriously ill to stabilize. Until a few days ago it seemed as if Israel was making good progress toward the third stage, as the immunization campaign was incrementally broadening the safety net on which a return to routine is based.

But since the middle of last week, the trend seemed to reverse. While the national R number is at 0.99, in the Arab community it is at 1.12, and in the ultra-Orthodox community it’s at 0.81, up from 0.64. A report issued Thursday by the Information and Knowledge Center said, “if this uptrend in the infection coefficient continues, within a week a return to increased morbidity is possible, because of the easing of restrictions and the spread of the British variant, which has become dominant in Israel.”

A ministry source said further that “the rise in morbidity was expected with the reopening of schools and parts of the economy. The question is how far it will go. We are seeing [the rise] primarily in children and teens – the unvaccinated population. Among older people, most of whom have been vaccinated, the vaccine is working, as expressed in both contagion and morbidity. Around 70 percent of new cases are younger than 40, 44 percent of them children.

“We were seeing this before Purim,” the source said. “What happened on Purim adds to the worry because there’s a very clear relationship between gatherings and a rise in infection, and this is expected to be expressed in statistics in about 10 days to two weeks.”

Israel has only met some of the conditions set for implementing the third exit stage from the lockdown. The most problematic index is the infection coefficient, which is just shy of 1. Moreover, the ratio of those over age 50 who’ve been vaccinated is only 82 percent, a far cry from 95 percent. “There are still 330,000 people older than 50 who haven’t yet been vaccinated and we are trying to do everything possible to persuade them,” a ministry official said. The number of seriously ill, at least, has been dropping; there are now 766 people hospitalized with COVID19 in serious condition. During the height of the third wave there were more than 1,200 such cases.

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