RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) – Schools in the occupied West Bank will shut down for 12 days in an effort to stop a sharp rise in coronavirus variant infections, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh said on Saturday.
High schools will be exempt from the closure which will begin on Sunday, Shtayyeh said in a televised address, adding the new restrictions were prompted by a large number of cases of the British and South African variants in the territory.
Intensive care units for COVID-19 patients have reached 95% occupancy in the West Bank and schools have been identified as a major cause for the fast spread of infections, the Ministry of Health said.
On Thursday, it reported that a randomised sample of coronavirus patients showed that more than three-quarters were infected with the British variant.
The World Bank said in a report this week that the Palestinian territories have one of the lowest testing rates in the Middle East and North Africa and that the positivity rate in the West Bank is over 21%, and in Gaza 29%, indicating an uncontrolled spread of the pandemic.
The West Bank, where 3.1 million Palestinians live, has reported a total of 118,519 coronavirus cases and 1,406 deaths.
Gaza, where coronavirus restrictions have gradually been lifted since January, has reported 55,091 cases and 549 deaths within its population of 2 million.
With around 32,000 vaccine doses in hand to date, the Palestinians launched limited vaccination programmes in the West Bank and Gaza this month, beginning with health workers.
The Palestinian Authority (PA) expects to receive an initial COVAX shipment within weeks and says it also has supply deals with Russia and drugmaker AstraZeneca, although doses have been slow to come. Shtayyeh said he expected shipments in March.
Israel has donated 2,000 doses to the PA but has come under criticism for not supplying more vaccines to the Palestinians. It argues that under interim peace accords the PA is responsible for vaccinations in Gaza and the West Bank.
(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta; Editing by Maayan Lubell and Clelia Oziel)