Naftali Bennett's government has eschewed new restrictions for slowing the spread of COVID-19, even though the prime minister warned Tuesday that the country is on the brink of a “storm of infection.”
The disconnect – as the omicron variant lurks – is confusing Israelis, experts warn.
“Currently the policy isn’t consistent, and that’s a problem because it makes the public confused; people can’t follow the rules,” said Prof. Hagai Levine, chairman of the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians.
Ketty Dor, who leads the COVID coverage for Israeli public broadcaster Kan, added: “The government is saying to the public that there are no restrictions, but you should know that we’re heading to a catastrophe. This is a very confused message.”
As a result, restaurants all over Israel are still full of customers, and on weekends, so are many hotel dining areas. Weddings and bar mitzvahs are drawing hundreds of guests, unlike during Israel’s previous COVID waves, when these gatherings were held under tight restrictions or were delayed. And hundreds of thousands of Israelis plan to attend New Year’s parties this weekend.
The government’s official policy is to allow these events to take place with minimal restrictions; the only real requirement of restaurants, bars and event halls is to check that their guests have a Green Pass confirming vaccination status. But this requirement isn’t being fully enforced in many places.
Health Ministry spokeswoman Gal Rotem said there are currently no plans to add restrictions on these businesses, “but this can also change depending on the increase in morbidity.”
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Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. public health official on infectious diseases, has advised Americans to avoid New Year’s parties. “When you are talking about a New Year’s Eve party, where you have 30, 40, 50 people celebrating ... I would recommend strongly, stay away from that this year. There will be other years to do that, but not this year,” Fauci told CNN on Monday.
Dr. Oren Kobiler, a researcher in immunology and clinical microbiology at Tel Aviv University, told Haaretz on Sunday: “I think the government is not doing enough and doesn’t have the courage to make difficult or unpopular decisions. It’s either a big lockdown or nothing. There’s a feeling the government won’t do anything in between these two extremes because any rules they impose won’t be enforced and nobody will obey them.”
Prof. Nadav Davidovitch, director of the School of Public Health at Ben-Gurion University, adds that “currently I don’t think we need more restrictions. We need to apply what is already suggested and see that there is compliance.”
On Monday, Israel recorded 2,952 new COVID cases, up from 1,799 the day before. The average number of daily cases has almost tripled in the past five weeks, with a 25 percent increase in serious active cases over the preceding eight days, most of them unvaccinated people.
Vaccines appear to provide partial protection against infection while remaining around 70 to 75 percent effective at preventing severe illness from the new variant. There are currently 85 serious cases, with 46 of these patients in critical condition, the Health Ministry says. Of these, 38 are on ventilators. Just 6 percent of people with severe illness are vaccinated.
The R number, the average number of people a coronavirus carrier infects, has risen to 1.47, based on Health Ministry data from the last 10 days. The number has seen a steady rise during December; on Sunday it reached a three-month peak at 1.41. In the past week, two people have died, raising the death toll to 8,242.
Last week, a Health Ministry expert panel recommended that Israel become the first country to offer a fourth vaccine dose – a second booster – to Israelis over 60, medical workers and people with compromised immune systems.