Infections Peak in Israel, Relaxed COVID Travel Rules Go Into Effect

Israel prepares to welcome vaccinated tourists back amid omicron outbreak, logs record 18,780 new COVID infections and a rise in severe cases

People queue at a coronavirus testing center in Tel Aviv, this week.
People queue at a coronavirus testing center in Tel Aviv, this week.Credit: Hadas Parush

Israel confirmed its highest-ever number of new coronavirus cases on Friday, reflecting a surge in infection over the past week driven by the highly contagious omicron variant, as relaxed rules on tourists' entry into Israel are set to go into effect in a government push to ease pandemic restrictions.

Israel logged 18,780 new coronavirus infections Saturday, the highest daily number since the pandemic began, according to Health Ministry figures. The country first broke its record four days ago, and the number of new daily cases has continued to climb since.

In addition, the number of severe COVID-19 cases climbed to 172, up from 143 the day before. Out of these, 63 patients are in critical condition and 49 are on ventilators.

More people in Israel are getting tested, the data shows, after government policy mandated those deemed not at risk of serious illness to switch to rapid antigen tests instead of PCR tests. Out of all tests taken, 9.48 percent came back positive.

This figure only accounts for tests taken at state-run testing centers. Healthy, vaccinated Israelis are permitted to take at-home rapid tests.

A coronavirus testing center in Tel Aviv, this week.

The R number – the average number of people each coronavirus carrier infects – dropped very slightly to 1.95 on Saturday. The figure, which is calculated according to data from the previous 10 days, has been on the rise since early December, but has stabilized over the weekend.

As of midnight between Saturday and Sunday, tourists arriving in Israel will be required to fill out an online form before their flight, take a PCR or antigen test before boarding their plane and a PCR test when they land in Israel. This applies to passengers who are either vaccinated or had COVID-19 and recovered. Unvaccinated tourists are not allowed into the country.

This follows a Thursday decision to lift all travel bans to destinations in Israel’s list of “red” countries with high infection rates. Israelis or foreigners arriving from abroad who are vaccinated or recovered are asked to quarantine until they receive a negative test result or 24 hours after entering the country, whichever comes first. All arrivals undergo a test at the airport or other points of entry.

People coming from abroad who are not vaccinated or recovered will only be able to come out of quarantine after receiving two negative results, one from the airport testing center and another after seven days of quarantine.

Testing, school policies change

On Friday, a new testing policy came into effect in cases of exposure to a confirmed coronavirus carrier, in an effort to ease pressure on testing centers. People aged 60 and over and at-risk individuals of all ages who are exposed to a confirmed carrier are required to take a PCR test, while all others have to take an antigen test. Vaccinated and recovered individuals who are not classified as at risk can opt for either a test at a state-run testing center, or a home test they purchase out of their own pocket.

The Health Ministry said Saturday that it had updated the automatic messages sent to those exposed to coronavirus carriers, in line with its new testing and quarantine policy. It clarified that out-of-date messages with expired information may still be sent out in the coming days.

The line at a COVID testing center in Tel Aviv this week. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Also, as of Sunday, Israel’s “traffic light” policy in the school system is cancelled, meaning children will continue in-school learning regardless of infection rates in their area. This is a change from the current regulations that stipulated that entire classes or schools go into quarantine if a student tests positive, effectively making school regulations identical to those in other public places.

In case a student or a teacher tests positive, the vaccinated or recovered students will undergo an antigen test and remain in quarantine if the result is positive. Exposed students who are not vaccinated or recovered will remain in quarantine even if they test negative for the virus.

A joint statement by the education and health ministries said that the rule permitting in-person learning only in communities in which more than 70 percent of residents have been vaccinated, as well as instructions to limit physical contact, are also canceled.

The statement stressed that the rule requiring masks in schools remains as it was, and any visitors will have to show a Green Pass showing they are either vaccinated or recovered. Employees who do not have a Green Pass will have to present a negative test to enter school.

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