Cabinet compromise on reopening businesses said expected as morbidity drops

With morbidity rates among high-risk groups dropping amid Israel’s rapid vaccination campaign, ministers are reportedly on track to reach a compromise deal at the coronavirus cabinet meeting Sunday evening to reopen shuttered Israeli commerce earlier than the planned February 23 target date.

Health officials and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were initially expected to clash with Defense Minister Benny Gantz over his call for reopening businesses this week, but several Hebrew media outlets reported Sunday morning that the two sides were likely to agree on a compromise date.

While the Health Ministry was said to have been adamant that no new moves should be made before February 23, a position supported by the premier, it is now reportedly willing to meet Gantz somewhere in the middle.

Gantz reportedly said he believes the falling morbidity rates mean the government can allow suffering businesses to begin emerging from the closure immediately.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold the first cabinet meeting in the Knesset on May 17, 2020. (Alex Kolomoisky/POOL)

The Health Ministry said Sunday morning that 1,896 people were diagnosed with COVID-19 the previous day, a significantly lower number attributable to reduced testing over the weekend. The positivity rate stood at 7.8%, consistent with rates from last week.

The total number cases since the pandemic started hit 723,038, including 60,976 active cases. They include 1,008 serious cases, including 378 in critical condition and 284 on ventilators.

The death toll reached 5,368.

Medical workers in the COVID-19 ward of Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem, February 3, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

According to figures released by the Military Intelligence taskforce, Israel’s R-value, the reproduction number of the virus that measures transmission, dropped from 1.0 last week to 0.85.

The number of serious patients was also on the decline, the task force reported, with the number down 125 since last week, when there were 1,133 patients in critical condition.

But the data also shows that a noticeable increase in serious cases among those under 60, which this week constituted about 40% of all serious patients. At the same time, there is a clear decline in the rate of severe morbidity among those 60 and over.

While over 3.8 million Israelis have received the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, with 2.4 million getting both doses, the figures also show that the drive has slowed across all age groups but particularly among the over 60s, 10% of whom have not yet been vaccinated.

A young Israeli receives a COVID-19 vaccine injection in Jerusalem, on February 10, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

According to a reported proposal presented to ministers last week, the next stage for commerce would enable opening nonessential street-front stores for all citizens. It would also allow more age groups to return to school, while malls, gyms, hotel rooms, museums, cultural events and more would reopen for carriers of a “green pass” — a permit for those who have been inoculated or who have recovered from COVID-19.

The pass will possibly include those who have a negative coronavirus test result from within the previous 48-72 hours, though that issue, and the legal ramifications of limiting access to certain people to some activities, is still being examined.

Jerusalemites wearing face masks walk in the city center on February 07, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Ministers will also discuss Sunday the further reopening of the education system, and may approve grades 1-4 returning to class outdoors in cities with high infection rates, as well as vaccinated students in grades 11-12 returning to indoor studies everywhere, health ministry officials said Sunday morning.

Coronavirus czar Nachman Ash visits the Jerusalem Municipality, November 22, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Speaking to Radio 103 Sunday morning, coronavirus czar Nachman Ash said that limitations would continue beyond February 23, warning that the Purim holiday, on February 25, was a cause for concern.

The holiday is usually marked by parties and revelry in both religious and secular Jewish communities. Last year’s Purim is believed to have been a major contributor to Israel’s first wave of infections.

“The possibility of imposing a night curfew or closure on Purim exists, but I do not think we need to get into this situation,” he said. “If we seem to be going for something uncontrollable that it could affect the morbidity trend in a bad way, we may recommend it. I do not want to get there.”

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