Israel Approves Partial Rollout of Second COVID Booster, Eyes Ending Quarantine From Low-risk Countries

The decision to vaccinate the immunocompromised is a world first, as Israel reintroduces an outdoor mask mandate for gatherings of more than 50 people amid the spread of omicron

Israel's Ben Gurion Airport, in December.
Israel's Ben Gurion Airport, in December.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Israel became the first country to give the green light for a fourth COVID shot of the Pfizer vaccine for people with weakened immune systems on Thursday, but a final decision on wider usage is still pending.

Also on Thursday, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz said he would back ending quarantine requirement for vaccinated individuals who arrive to Israel from “non-red” countries, referring to countries with a lower coronavirus infection rate.

“I will accept the opinions of the experts and promote abolishing quarantine requirements for returnees from abroad,” Horowitz said. “The actions we took were important, but from the beginning we said that once there is majority community spread, some of the guidelines will be superfluous – if they prove no longer effective, we will eliminate them.”

The Health Ministry's new quarantine policy for those entering Israel from red and orange countries came into effect Wednesday. According to the new outline, returnees from red, or highest-risk, countries will not be required to isolate in a motel and can instead download the "Hachmon" tracking app to remain in home quarantine for two weeks. This can be shortened to one week subject to a negative PCR test result on the seventh day.

Vaccinated or recovered returnees from orange countries, those with medium risk, will have to isolate at home and can leave if they receive a negative PCR test result on the third day following their arrival. Those not vaccinated or recovered are required to isolate for two weeks at home, with the option of shortening their quarantine on the seventh day.

In the press briefing on Thursday night Horowitz also that said that a lockdown and economic shutdown are out of the question, and that action should be taken to allow foreign citizens to enter the country.

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, yesterday.Credit: Emil Salman

He also criticized the Finance Ministry for withholding funds for the necessary extra beds and ECMO machines required to meet the fifth wave of the virus. "This is a demand that will save lives, so I will not compromise on it," he said.

Landmark decision on fourth shot

The second booster shot was approved by director general of the Health Ministry, Professor Nachman Ash, but he did not extend the decision to over 60s, despite a recommendation from an expert panel in Israel last week.

An Israeli hospital administered fourth shots to a test group of health workers on Monday, in what it called the first major study into whether a second round of boosters will help contend with the omicron variant. Results are expected within two weeks.

Prof. Ash also signed an order Wednesday requiring that masks be worn in outdoor gatherings of more than 50 people, but the decision was not publicized at the time.

The decisions comes in light of the mushrooming of the omicron variant throughout the country. Israel logged 3,947 new coronavirus cases Thursday, the highest number since September, as recent data by the Health Ministry showed the country's COVID infections are rising by most metrics.

The number of new coronavirus cases has more than doubled in the past three days.

The R number, the average number of people each coronavirus carrier infects, rose accordingly Thursday to 1.61 according to data released by the Health Ministry on Wednesday.

Despite this, the government also recently approved a new quarantine policy in which vaccinated or recovered individuals who were exposed to the virus – without distinction between variants – will be able to take a rapid antigen test to be exempt from quarantine, from Wednesday night.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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