When signs of the coronavirus pandemic appeared in Israel in March, the country shut down hard and fast. Then it reopened.
That return to normal, however, was short-lived. Between 8 a.m. Tuesday and 8 a.m. Wednesday morning, Israel recorded a new daily high of 1,528 coronavirus cases, the Health Ministry said. In the West Bank and Gaza, cases have also steadily risen, with more than 300 reported on Tuesday.
Israel has now reimposed some coronavirus restrictions, though it has yet to go back into full lockdown. Bars, clubs and event halls were shut, restaurants limited to 20 people and all pools and gyms closed earlier this week.
Israel’s new spate of infections illustrates the risks attached to stopping lockdown conditions.
According to Gabi Barbash, a former director general of the Health Ministry and professor of epidemiology at the Weizmann Institute, the main trigger for the new wave lies in the government’s decision to open schools, event halls and pubs, with infections surging among young people.
“Following the first wave, the public was eager to go out and believe that corona is over,” Barbash said. “They pressed the government and the government was not strong enough to object to the pressure, and the decision was made to open the education system full volume.”
An outbreak in the ultra-Orthodox settlement of Beitar Illit, 10 miles southwest of Jerusalem, led to a lockdown there on Wednesday, with traffic in and out of the city restricted.
Some areas are not as badly affected, but it seems the virus has spread throughout the country. Over the last weekend, the emergency services Magen David Adom reported a 300 percent increase in the number of calls to its hotline.
The Health Ministry said it expected the number of patients on ventilators — currently just 32 — to reach 2,000. It also said it plans to add two to three additional coronavirus hotels to the existing 12, where people can quarantine without infecting others.
And Benny Gantz, the defense minister and alternate prime minister, announced that he is isolating himself after being exposed to a family member with coronavirus.
With a population of around 8.6 million — roughly the size of New Jersey — Israel has had 32,714 coronavirus cases since the beginning of the pandemic and 343 deaths. There are currently just over 14,000 active coronavirus infections, according to the Ministry of Health.
Previously, the highest the daily infection total reached in April was 633, with daily infection numbers coming down to single digits on some days in May.
During the lockdown in the spring, Israel imposed strict limits on its residents, even restricting the number of feet they were allowed to go from their homes. As the number of cases eased, so did the restrictions, and the decision to open some school grades in May was quickly followed by the reopening of all grades.
Image: Israeli healthcare workers at a testing center for migrants in Tel Aviv on Monday. (Oded Balilty / AP)
The reopening of schools and businesses was far too fast, said Siegal Sadetzki, who quit as Israel’s public health director on Tuesday, saying that her warnings had been ignored.
“It has been several weeks since Israel’s compass for handling the pandemic has lost its bearings,” she wrote on Facebook. “The achievements in dealing with the first wave (of infections) were canceled out by the broad and swift opening of the economy” that outpaced many other countries.
As cases in Israel have risen, so have cases among Palestinians in the West Bank. The West Bank and Gaza have recorded more than 4,600 cases and 18 deaths. Just under 2,000 of its cases were reported in the first week of July.
The Palestinian Authority on Tuesday extended a five-day lockdown in the West Bank for another five days, forcing all businesses, public transport, mosques and churches to close, with the exception of pharmacies, bakeries and supermarkets.
Image: A Palestinian child prepares to get checked for coronavirus at a mobile testing station in Sheikh Jarrah, Jerusalem on Monday. (Ahmad Gharabli / AFP – Getty Images)
Palestinian politicians have blamed Israel for the rise in cases, saying that Palestinian workers returning to the territory from Israel were infected while at work.
Though the new outbreak may have started with young people, it won’t end there, Barbash cautioned.
“Maybe we are doing better work with nursing homes, and that’s the result of the demography of new second wave,” he said. “This is only temporary. There is no way to separate all the population.”