Israel's new coronavirus czar Prof. Nachman Ash said Thursday that the country should prepare for at least another year of dealing with the pandemic, warning that "a third lockdown is definitely on the agenda."
Ash was speaking during his first briefing on the virus since replacing Prof. Ronni Gamzu as head of the national task force to handle the outbreak, as Israel saw an increase in the number of new diagnoses in recent days.
Israel on Thursday saw more than 1,000 new cases of COVID-19 in 24 hours, for the first time since the end of the second lockdown last month, although the positivity rate for tests remained below 2%.
"I and all the leaders of the fight against coronavirus see the heavy prices you are paying and the responsible way you are behaving," Ash told Israelis. "You are sacrificing a great deal and working alongside us for the health of the nation," said Ash.
"Unfortunately, there are also irresponsible people who pose a danger to all of us, those who do not wear masks, who hold mass gatherings. Most of the nation is being mindful, [but] the minority who downplay [the virus] … seriously endanger us all."
On the race to acquire a vaccine against coronavirus, Ash said: "We are preparing vigorously to lead a national vaccination campaign for the benefit of all Israeli citizens. At the end of the vaccination campaign, I hope we can declare that the people of Israel have defeated the coronavirus, but it will take more time. There are those who believe that the virus is already behind us, but I see things differently. It's not going to be easy, it's not going to be quick.
"My working assumption… is that the coronavirus will be around in the coming year. An effective vaccination of the population will at best take place in 2021 and at worst towards the end of next year. Therefore, we as a country and as citizens must prepare for at least a year in which we are living a coronavirus routine."
Earlier Thursday, a member of the committee of experts advising the government on how best to fight coronavirus warned that the rise in new infections was a source of concern.
Prof. Galia Rahav, who heads the Infectious Disease Unit at Sheba Medical Center, Israel's largest hospital, said that Israel could be moving too quickly in exiting its second nationwide closure.
"I believe we must temper our re-openings so as not to repeat mistakes made after the first lockdown that resulted in a surge in COVID-19 cases," Rahav said.
"We are seeing a rise in cases in the Arab sector," Rahav added. "There are large gatherings in weddings that are taking place in that community. Many Israeli Arabs have also begun traveling abroad, mostly to Turkey, where they have been infected with the virus.
Rahav said the government should resist calls to reopen gyms, after studies conducted around the world showed them to be rampant with contagion, but said efforts should be made to allow some schools and commerce to open with mitigation in place.
"I do not know if the mall managements are meticulous enough and if they observe all the regulations," Rahav said, referring to a government-sanctioned pilot program that would allow 15 shopping malls to reopen alongside quick testing sites.
"We can test people before they enter to see where we stand in terms of cases," she said.
The Sheba Medical Center was also considering a similar pilot program in two high schools - one in Tel Aviv and one in the south.