GAZA/RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) – Palestinian authorities have ramped up COVID-19 testing and vaccinations in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip and warned that public indifference to their calls for masking and social distancing is hampering efforts to fight the pandemic.
The Palestinian Authority Health Ministry said the total number of active cases of COVID-19 in the two territories stood at 64,000 on Wednesday due to the highly infectious Omicron variant.
“Three weeks ago we were recording up to 300 infections daily, but in the last few days we crossed the 11,000 mark,” said Mahdi Rashed, director of health services in Ramallah. “It’s clear this is a result of the Omicron variant spreading.”
Rashed cautioned that the real number of infections is likely higher, because many people are not getting tested, and he blamed the rise on peoples’ “recklessness and indifference” by not adhering to health safety rules.
Palestinian Health Minister Mai al-Kaila warned that governmental hospitals in the West Bank were at full capacity on Saturday. In the past week alone, the number of people who were seriously ill more than doubled in Gaza and nearly doubled in the West Bank.
Across Gaza and the West Bank, masking is mandatory inside public offices and government employees are required to get vaccinated, officials said.
But Ahmed Al-Atrash, a 28-year-old resident of the West Bank city of Hebron, where he runs a clothing stand, said public apathy had set in.
“No one cares about corona,” he said. “No one stresses about it. They do not care, and this has become a normal thing among Palestinians.”
Palestinian authorities in both the West Bank and Gaza have opened more testing sites, approved rapid tests and are urging people to get vaccinated.
Of the 3.1 million Palestinians living in the West Bank, 60% are fully vaccinated, while the rate for Gaza’s 2.3 million population stands at 43%, according to health officials. The death toll in the West Bank and Gaza from the virus has reached nearly 5,000.
(This story corrects to remove reference to daily increase in paragraph 2.)
(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; Writing by Henriette Chacar in Jerusalem; Editing by Jeffrey Heller, Alexandra Hudson and Grant McCool)