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Amid New Surge In Virus Cases, Israel's Top Public Health Official Resigns

Israeli security forces control access to a neighborhood that has been isolated following an increase in coronavirus cases in the southern coastal city of Ashdod last week.
Jack Guez
AFP via Getty Images
Israeli security forces control access to a neighborhood that has been isolated following an increase in coronavirus cases in the southern coastal city of Ashdod last week.

Israel's top public health official resigned Tuesday, claiming leaders ignored her warnings and reopened the country too quickly, driving a new surge of COVID-19 cases that officials are scrambling to contain.

Siegal Sadetzki, the leading epidemiologist heading Israel's coronavirus response and director of the Israeli Health Ministry's Public Health Services, posted her nine-page resignation letter on Facebook on Tuesday, the same day Israel quickly reimposed restrictions shutting down wedding and entertainment venues, bars, clubs, gyms and swimming pools.

"Unfortunately, for the last few weeks, the compass handling the pandemic lost its direction," Sadetzki wrote. "We've watched with frustration as the hourglass of possibilities has run out. On this basis I reached the conclusion that under the new conditions in which my professional opinion is not accepted — I can no longer assist with an effective response to curb the spread of the virus."

In recent days, Israel has had record-high numbers of around 1,100 daily infections, nearly twice the peak seen in the spring, with serious cases doubling about every four days. According to the Health Ministry, the country currently has at least 12,700 active cases, with 35 patients on ventilators. At least 338 have died.

Sadetzki praised Israel's nationwide lockdowns in the spring, which brought an initial wave of infections to as low as about 10 cases a day. She blamed the latest wave in large part on Israel's swift reopening of schools in May and wedding venues in June.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had declared victory over the pandemic in May and encouraged Israelis to go out and "enjoy yourselves." Several weeks of post-pandemic euphoria washed over the country as it reopened schools, restaurants and beaches. (Officials shut schools where virus cases were detected.) During the peak springtime wedding season, wedding venues were allowed to host up to 250 guests.

Now Netanyahu warns this week's new restrictions are necessary to prevent the health system from collapsing and can prevent a nationwide lockdown.

Democracy advocates criticized a new law passed Tuesday, shortly after midnight, giving Netanyahu and his Cabinet emergency powers to impose further pandemic restrictions for up to a week before lawmakers may amend or cancel them.

Netanyahu was initially lauded for his handling of the first wave of the virus, but polls published Monday by Israeli Channel 12 TV found his public approval rating in handling Israel's health crisis dropped from 74% in May to 46% in July, and approval of his handling of the economy during the pandemic dropped from 53% in May to 33% in July.

Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem are also facing a spike in infection rates, mostly blamed on wedding and funeral gatherings, with at least 5,000 confirmed cases and 21 deaths. The Palestinian Authority imposed a five-day lockdown on Friday, blocking movement and closing most businesses. On Tuesday, it extended the lockdown by an additional five days and banned all weddings and gatherings.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.