More than 7,000 people in Israel tested positive for COVID-19 on Saturday, with the positivity rate hitting 7.09% — a high not seen since February — although a top expert expressed optimism that the outbreak was being curbed ahead of the start of the school year.
Out of 100,153 tests administered on Saturday, 7,071 came back positive. One month ago, the positivity rate was just 2.29%.
As of Sunday morning, there were 80,579 active coronavirus cases in Israel, with 1,175 people hospitalized, 726 in serious condition and 149 of those on ventilators. Nine people with COVID died on Saturday, and 12 died on Friday.
Despite an ongoing rise in cases, schools are slated to reopen nationwide on Wednesday. According to the Kan public broadcaster, more than 3,000 students tested positive on Saturday, and 125,000 students and 6,500 educational staff are currently in quarantine.
But Health Ministry director general Nachman Ash told the Israel Hayom daily that he does not expect further lockdowns this year.
“I believe that students in Israel will study [in-person] for many more days [than last year],” Ash told Israel Hayom.
“There will be people in mandatory quarantine, and we’re working on minimizing that. I don’t see a reason that the school year won’t open,” he added, noting that even in “red cities” — those with high COVID-19 rates — most high schools will operate if more than 70% of students are vaccinated.
Meanwhile, Ash told Radio 103FM that the Health Ministry is working to ensure that unvaccinated teachers who refuse to get tested for COVID every few days will not be allowed in schools, although that poses legal challenges.
“At the moment there is no legal enforcement against unvaccinated teachers who refuse to get tested,” Ash said Sunday morning. “We still can’t say for certain that they won’t be allowed into schools, but we’re working on it.”
Some teachers groups have threatened to sue if they are prevented from working while other unvaccinated public sector employees are not.
Weizmann Institute biologist Eran Segal, a top government adviser on the coronavirus, told Army Radio that he is cautiously optimistic ahead of the new school year.
“Even if there is a certain rise in the infection rate, we can overcome it,” he said Sunday morning. He said it was possible Israel could reach “1,200 serious COVID cases, but if more teenagers get vaccinated, we can balance out the rise in infection.”
Segal said that “the outbreak has not been stopped, but there is definitely a drop in the rate of infection. The number of new serious cases has stabilized and stands at about 100 per day — but unfortunately, about 20% of them will likely die of the disease.”
Close to 70% of those aged 16-19 are fully vaccinated, with 80% receiving at least one dose of the COVID vaccine as of Sunday morning. Among those ages 12-15, 30% are fully vaccinated and 45% have received at least one shot. Almost 2 million Israelis overall have already received a third booster dose of the vaccine, including 80% of those ages 70-79.
Coronavirus czar Salman Zarka told the Kan public broadcaster on Sunday that Israel is learning to live with the coronavirus.
“The virus is here to stay,” said Zarka. “There will probably be a fifth wave after the fourth wave. Once we accept that the virus is here and we have to live with it, then we have to find a balance.”
But Galia Rahav, head of Sheba Medical Center’s Infectious Disease Unit, warned against complacency as the school year begins and the High Holidays approach.
“We have to be very careful because of the opening of schools and the holidays,” she told Kan, though she noted that there are signs of good news ahead. “There are positive metrics. There is a drop in the rise of serious cases among those who have received a third dose.”
Since the start of the outbreak, 6,958 Israelis have succumbed to the disease, including 485 so far in August.