Coronavirus Israel: Infection Rate on the Rise Again; Analysts Warn Against Further Reopening

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Officers at a police checkpoint in central Israel, as Purim curfew went into effect on Thursday night.
Officers at a police checkpoint in central Israel, as Purim curfew went into effect on Thursday night.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

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Israel is in the midst of an extensive vaccination campaign, and is beginning to see a drop in COVID infections and severe cases. Israel exited its third nationwide lockdown, but inbound and outbound flights remain suspended except for special cases. So far, 5,694 Israelis have died of the virus.

Meanwhile, Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip have received 30,000 doses of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine, and 2,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine donated by Israel. It may take a while still for a mass vaccination campaign to get under way, and many months for it to reach enough members of the population. 1,679 people have died so far in the West Bank, while 548 have died in Gaza.

>> How many have already been vaccinated

>> Two months into Israel’s COVID vaccination drive, most comprehensive study yet shows level of effectiveness

>> Bernie Sanders slams Israel for sending COVID vaccines to allies before Palestinians

LIVE UPDATES

12:30 P.M. Johnson & Johnson's one-dose vaccine closes in on FDA approval

Johnson & Johnson’s one-dose COVID-19 vaccine appeared safe and effective in trials, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said Wednesday, paving the way for its approval for emergency use as soon as this week.

The vaccine was 66% effective at preventing moderate to severe COVID-19 in a 44,000 person global trial, the FDA said in documents ahead of a Friday meeting of independent experts who will advise the agency on emergency authorization.

New data provided by J&J to the FDA showed the vaccine was 64% effective at stopping moderate to severe cases of COVID-19 after 28 days in thousands of trial participants in South Africa where a worrying new variant has swept across the country. (Reuters)

FRIDAY

7:20 P.M. Thousands gather in Tel Aviv street parties

Thousands gathered to celebrate the Purim holiday on the streets of Tel Aviv on Friday, despite the coronavirus curfew and regulations. Police tried, but failed, to disperse groups of hundreds of people in the Kerem Hateimanim neighborhood and the nearby Carmel Market, threatening them with fines.

According to eyewitnesses, the parties were not organized but rather spontaneous gatherings of people who had bought alcohol from local bars and celebrated in the streets, many of them not wearing face masks to protect against the coronavirus.

On Thursday, Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai requested in a briefing for Tel Aviv District Police that officers focus on enforcement and making public announcements to disperse large groups. (Bar Peleg)

3:41 P.M. Cabinet orders halt on public transportation to and from Jerusalem for Purim

All public transportation and shuttles to and from Jerusalem will stop operating won't be allowed to operate starting Saturday at 6 P.M., and can resume services on Monday, the coronavirus cabinet decided.

While nighttime curfew across Israel expires on Sunday, Purim celebrations in Jerusalem are traditionally held a day later than the rest of the country, hence the specific restrictions for the city.

Organized shuttles to workplaces and school buses are allowed to operate as usual. 

Private cars will be permitted to enter and leave Jerusalem during the 30-hour period. (Haaretz)

2:55 P.M. Police disperse crowds in Tel Aviv hours before holiday curfew resumes

Hours before the nighttime curfew goes into effect this Purim holiday weekend, on Friday afternoon, police dispersed crowds in Tel Aviv's Carmel Market and Kerem Hateimanim, threatening to hand out fines.

The police began dispersing the crowds about two hours after they began to form. Although hundreds had gathered, with people buying alcohol at local bars and kiosks, this was not an organized street party. 

Elsewhere in Tel Aviv, people took to the streets to celebrate Purim, before the curfew resumes at 8:30 P.M., lasting until 5 A.M., and again on Saturday. During curfew hours, Israelis in Jewish-majority localities are banned from visiting other people's homes and are required to stay within a 1,000-meter radius of their own home, barring exceptional circumstances. (Bar Peleg)

12:25 P.M. COVID-19 infection coefficient on the rise again

As Israel continues to reopen its economy following a six-week lockdown, the COVID-19 infection has reversed course and is on the rise once again, with the infection coefficient (“R” – the average number of new infections caused by each carrier) inching toward 1 again and currently at 0.97, and the number of patients in serious condition also remaining high (over 800), according to a report released on Friday the Military Intelligence's national information center on the coronavirus.

The R rate is expected to surpass 1 within a few days if this trend of rising infection and serious illness continues. When the R rate is greater than 1, every person infected spreads it to more than one other person on average, such that the virus is spreading instead of retreating.

The next steps planned for reopening the economy should be reconsidered, the report's authors recommend, in light of the increase, which may be attributed to the spread of the British variant of the virus, and to a large portion of the population not having been vaccinated yet.

About 12 percent of those 50 and over (not including those who have recovered) have yet to receive the first dose of the vaccine, and the report cites a pronounced increase in the numbers of new patient in serious condition among younger age groups, which now make up of half of new serious cases. The British variant, which has become the dominant strain in Israel since the exit from the third nationwide lockdown began, significantly increases the risk of infection, as well as the severity of the illness and the need for hospitalization, by 60 to 70 percent, as compared to the original coronavirus variant. (Haaretz)

10:38 A.M. Police break up Purim parties

Police reported several parties held overnight in Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh and Rehovot, which were held despite a nighttime curfew imposed during the Purim holiday.

Organizers of more than five parties were handed fines for violating the government's coronavirus regulations, and some were detained by police.

The curfew will resume on Friday at 8:30 P.M. and last until 5 A.M., and again on Saturday. During curfew hours, Israelis in Jewish-majority localities are banned from visiting other people's homes and are required to stay within a 1,000-meter radius of their own home, barring exceptional circumstances. (Bar Peleg and Aaron Rabinowitz)

THURSDAY

8:30 P.M. Israel's curfew ahead of Purim festivities goes into effect

A curfew aimed to discourage gatherings has gone into effect across Israel.

About 2,000 police officers have been deployed to enforce the curfew, which will last until 5 A.M. on Friday, and will go into effect again on Friday and Saturday from 8:30 P.M. to 5 A.M.

The cabinet is considering the possibility of extending the curfew by one day, since in Jerusalem the holiday is celebrated for an additional day, ending at sundown on Sunday.

The police will step up patrol and enforcement activities significantly around the country during the holiday weekend, including by operating 24 checkpoints nationwide during curfew hours.

National police commissioner Yaakov Shabtai said Wednesday he had instructed the department of investigations to initiate criminal proceedings against the organizers of illegal gatherings, in addition to fines for breaking the curfew.(Josh Breiner, Judy Maltz and Aaron Rabinowitz)

>> Click here to read the full report

8:16 P.M. Israel halts plans to ship COVID-19 vaccines abroad, attorney general says

Israel has halted all shipments of the COVID-19 vaccine abroad, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit said in a statement, adding that he was examining the legality of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to send part of Israel's vaccine supply to foreign countries.

Mendelblit said he was told by Israel’s National Security Council all shipments have been stopped, pending a legal review of the scheme. (Judy Maltz) 

>> Click here to read the full report

7:44 P.M. Israeli HMO Clalit releases a study on contagion level of the British COVID-19 strain

The research institute attached to Israeli HMO Clalit has released findings regarding the infection rate of the British strain. 

During January, Israel registered a 70 percent spike in infection rate among those who did not receive the coronavirus vaccine, the data revealed.

The study found that among the 50,000 Clalit insurance holders who contracted the coronavirus before being vaccinated during from January to February 2021, there was a 70% rise in the infection rate compared to 60,000 in previous months.

Clalit says this is likely due to the British COVID strain (B.1.1.7).

During this period, the rate of deterioration for coronavirus patients in serious condition within 14 days was similar to previous rates - 1.0 percent in those aged 30-50, 3.7 percent in those aged 50-60, and 14.5 percent in those aged over 60. (Ido Efrati)

>> Click here to read the full report

6:20 P.M. Honduras recieves first vaccine shipment from Israel

Honduras received its first shipment of COVID-19 vaccines from Israel on Thursday, Honduran Health Minister Alba Consuelo Flores said. (Reuters)

>> Click here to read the full report

1:08 P.M. Seven cases of Californian COVID strain found in Israel

Israel has so far recorded seven cases of the Californian COVID variant, with one case found during random testing, meaning that it cannot be traced back to a returning traveler. It is possible that more Israelis have been infected with the virus and have not yet been diagnosed.

In addition, 444 Israelis have also been diagnosed with the South African strain. (Ido Efrati)

>> Click here for full report

12:05 P.M. 26-year-old COVID patient declared dead after collapsing in his home

A 26-year-old man from the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Ras al-Amud was admitted to the trauma ward of Hadassah University Hospital, Mount Scopus, after he collapsed in his home and his heart stopped. 

Hospital staff was told that he was in quarantine, and a rapid test showed that he was positive for COVID-19.

A Magen David Adom team attempted to resuscitate him, as did the hospital's emergency room staff. He was declared dead after the attempts failed.

According to the man's family, he suffered no underlying conditions and was apparently not vaccinated. (Ido Efrati)

10:51 A.M. Israel recorded more than 4,200 new cases on Wednesday

The Health Ministry said that 4,298 new coronavirus cases had been diagnosed on Wednesday, out of the 75,836 tests that were conducted.

As of Thursday morning, 770 patients are in serious condition, of whom 249 are on ventilators.

Israel has now inoculated more than 4.59 million people (close to 50 percent of the population), with around 122,951 people receiving a jab on Wednesday. Of the overall figure, about 3.2 million people (34.65 percent of the population) have received the second dose of the vaccine.

So far, 5,673 people have died from the virus in Israel. (Haaretz)

8:00 A.M. Coronavirus czar, health minister slam Purim street parties ahead of curfew

Hundreds of people violated coronavirus regulations by participating in Purim parties outdoors in Tel Aviv on Wednesday night, a day before a three-day nighttime curfew is set to begin nationwide because of the holiday.

Coronavirus czar Nachman Ash said it was "very dismaying that this is how some are choosing to behave at such a time, when the infection numbers are still high."

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein also condemned the gatherings in a Facebook post on Thursday: "The revelers at the infection-spreading parties need to know – the rise in infection will be signed with your names, businesses will close because of you, the loss of human life will be on your conscience," he wrote. "You see the situation, you see how young people are falling seriously ill, how death comes for every age."

About 2,000 police officers will enforce the nighttime curfew that will go into effect 8:30 P.M. Thursday evening, when the holiday begins, and remain in effect Friday and Saturday from 8:30 P.M. to 5 A.M. the following day.

The cabinet is considering the possibility of extending the curfew by one day, since in Jerusalem the holiday is celebrated for an additional day, ending at sundown on Sunday.

The police will step up patrol and enforcement activities significantly around the country during the holiday weekend, including by operating 24 checkpoints during curfew hours. (Bar Peleg

>> Click here to read the full report

7:30 A.M. Most comprehensive vaccine study yet shows high level of effectiveness

The coronavirus vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech provides very high protection against symptomatic illness, severe illness and death, closely approaching the level of protection the companies announced from their Phase III clinical trial. This is the clear conclusion of the most thorough, comprehensive study published to date.

It’s based on the medical data from 1.2 million patients belonging to Israel’s Clalit Health Services health maintenance organization – half of whom were vaccinated and half were not.

Three months after real-world coronavirus vaccinations began and two months after Israel's campaign started in late December, the vaccine’s safety is crystal clear, as tens of millions of people have received it with no worrisome side effects. But up to now, the question of whether it was really as effective against the coronavirus as the clinical trials showed remained unanswered. (Asaf Ronel)

>> Click here to read the full report

2:10 A.M. Bernie Sanders slams Israel for sending COVID vaccines to allies before Palestinians 

Senator Bernie Sanders slammed the Israeli government for distributing COVID-19 vaccines to countries with which it has bolstered relations in recent years before sending vaccines to Palestinians.

"As the occupying power, Israel is responsible for the health of all the people under its control," Sanders tweeted. "It is outrageous that Netanyahu would use spare vaccines to reward his foreign allies while so many Palestinians in the occupied territories are still waiting." (Ben Samuels)

>> Click here to read the full report

WEDNESDAY

9:36 P.M. Attorney general: Plan to limit number of Israelis returning could face legal challenges

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit told cabinet ministers their plan to limit entry of Israelis returning from abroad to only 200 faces legal difficulties, Justice Ministry officials told Haaretz. Mendelblit’s argument is that Israelis who aren’t able to return to Israel under these restrictions before the end of March won’t be able to vote in Israel’s upcoming election.

Mendelblit and his deputy, Raz Nizri, explained to ministers that in the case that a new nationwide lockdown is announced, a measure to limit entry to the country may be constitutional, but this is not the case. (Netael Bandel)

>> Click here to read the full report

8:33 P.M. 11 major cities defy government, hold classes for 7th- through 10th-graders

Seventh- through 10th-graders in 11 large Israeli cities returned to school on Wednesday, defying the government's decision that these grades should resume in-person learning only on March 7.

Forum 15, an association comprising most of the country’s biggest cities, had announced on Sunday that its 15 members would return 7th through 10th grades to school in defiance of the regulations. On Wednesday, it announced that these grades in fact returned to school in 11 cities, including Haifa, Tel Aviv, Herzliya, Rishon Letzion and Givatayim.

“The principals and teachers are happy to see their students again,” its statement said.

But a few of the forum’s members backtracked on their decision to reopen school for these grades, including Be’er Sheva and Netanya. The Be’er Sheva municipality said the principals had decided to postpone reopening these grades until Monday, while Netanya said it’s obeying the cabinet’s decision. (Or Kashti)

>> Click here to read the full report

8:23 P.M. Netanyahu: Israel has 'more than enough' vaccines

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu acknowledged sharing coronavirus vaccines with a number of friendly countries that have given favors to Israel in the past.

Speaking to reporters, Netanyahu said that Israel has “more than enough” vaccines for its own population, and that he had personally decided to share what he called a symbolic number of doses to reward allies.

“It was done in return for things we already received, through many contacts in various areas that I will not detail here,” Netanyahu said. "I think it absolutely buys goodwill.”

Israeli public broadcaster Kan reported a total of roughly 100,000 Moderna vaccines are being shipped to some 15 allies. They include countries that have recognized contested Jerusalem as Israel's capital, including Guatemala and Honduras, as well as a number of countries in Africa that have strong or budding ties with Israel.

Israel has shared just 2,000 doses of vaccines with the Palestinian Authority to innoculate West Bank medical workers. Otherwise, the Palestinians have struggled to procure their own vaccines. (The Associated Press)

8:04 P.M. Health Ministry decision makes vaccines off limits to thousands of foreign residents

The Tel Aviv facility where foreign migrant workers and asylum seekers have been receiving coronavirus vaccinations this month will stop administering the shots to new patients as of Tuesday and will only be providing the foreign residents second vaccine doses, the Health Ministry has decided.

The decision leaves tens of thousands of foreign residents who do not have official status in Israel without a way of getting vaccinated. (Lee Yaron)

>> Click here to read the full report

7:17 P.M. Netanyahu aims to complete vaccination campaign by April

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he aims to complete Israel’s vaccination campaign by the end of March, and fully reopen the economy in April – just after Israel's election, set for March 23.

Speaking at a press briefing, Netanyahu said 81 percent of Israelis 16 and older are already vaccinated. According to Health Ministry figures, about 4.5 million Israelis received the first dose of the vaccine so far, and about 3.2 million of them got the second and final dose. Netanyahu said he wants 6.2 million people vaccinated by the end of March.

“We’re still with several thousand [new] confirmed cases a day,” he said, warning of a renewed outbreak after Purim, which starts on Thursday, and calling on Israelis to follow restrictions and avoid parties and large gatherings over the holiday. 

"If we all do what we should, we'll be able" to fully reopen in April, Netanyahu said. (Haaretz)

5:21 P.M. Israel launches pilot program to track returning passengers using electronic bracelets

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, along with lawmaker Yakov Asher, chairman of the Knesset's Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, announced a pilot program to monitor Israelis returning from abroad using electronic bracelets, to ensure they comply with quarantine regulations. 

MK Asher said they would advance "very" urgent legislation on the matter. Another lawmaker on the committee, Yoav Kish, argued the move requires willingness by citizens to cooperate, as enforcement would be practiaclly impossible. (Jonathan Lis)

>> Click here to read the full report

1:15 P.M. Knesset passes law allowing disclosing identities of unvaccinated to authorities

The Knesset approved in a third and final vote a law allowing disclosing personal details of Israelis who have not been vaccinated.

The information will be given to local authorities, the Education Ministry and officials in the Welfare Ministry.

The emergency regulation will be in effect for three months and could later be extended. Thirty Knesset members backed the law, while 13 opposed it.

According to the new law, the Health Ministry will be permitted to share names, ID numbers, addresses, and phone numbers of unvaccinated Israelis with local authorities, and the Education and Welfare Ministries to help promote and increase the coronavirus vaccinations. (Jonathan Lis)

>> Click here to read the full report

The coronavirus cabinet approved two-week mandatory quarantine at state-run facilities for all those returning from abroad.

The regulation will go into effect after being approved by the Knesset's Constitution, Law and Justice Committee and will be in effect until March 9.

It is still unknown when the committee will convene on Wednesday.

The directive to quarantine upon arrival in Israel expired on Monday at midnight, after committee head Yakov Asher refused to extend it and called on the government to come up with alternatives.

Those who have been tested negative twice for the coronavirus will have to quarantine for 10 days, the Prime Minister's Office, and health and transportation ministries said in a joint statement.

The statement added that special cases will be reviewed by a Health Ministry committee at Ben-Gurion Airport.

Those who hold a vaccination certificate or have recovered from the virus are obligated to undergo a coronavirus test prior to their arrival in Israel, but are not obligated to enter quarantine. (Jonathan Lis)

>> Click here for previous updates

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