As COVID Numbers Climb Again, Israel Eyes Reinstating Some Restrictions

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Haaretz
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Israelis wear face masks during a mall visit, earlier this week.
Israelis wear face masks during a mall visit, earlier this week.Credit: Hadas Parush
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Haaretz

Israel is considering reinstating coronavirus restrictions due to an uptick in the number of new COVID-19 cases over the past several days as the country tries to curb the spread of the delta variant.  

Israel reported its highest daily coronavirus infection rate in three months on Wednesday, with 293 people testing positive for the virus the previous day. 

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However, the number of severe COVID cases in Israel remains low. The delta variant was first discovered in India and is considered highly contagious.

Israel also broke a three-month record in the number of people who got vaccinated. On Tuesday, 16,321 got the first jab and 3,453 received the second – the highest number since March‎ 17. The rising vaccination rates come as the government is encouraging more Israelis – particularly youth – to get the shot.

There are 1,990 active coronavirus cases in Israel; 29 patients are in serious condition, according to Health Ministry data released Thursday. The number of fatalities in Israel is 6,429. More than 5.5 million Israelis have received their first coronavirus vaccination, and 5.1 million have received their second dose.

According to experts, attempts to curb the entry of coronavirus variants into Israel through Ben-Gurion International Airport are futile at this stage due to the country’s rising incidence of illness and the identification of confirmed cases.

“When travelers returning from abroad account for less than 10 percent of confirmed cases, efforts at the airport become meaningless,” said a member of the Health Ministry’s advisory team. On Monday, only nine of the 288 newly diagnosed patients were people who had returned from abroad.

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked visited the airport on Wednesday and explained that it was decided to test all passengers departing for the six countries to which travel without special permission is banned – Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, India, Mexico and Russia.

“We have understood that people are simply disregarding the directives, and therefore we have made some changes,” she said. Shaked also raised the possibility of shutting down the airport entirely if there is another widespread coronavirus outbreak in Israel.

Health officials said that if the upward trend doesn’t change, some restrictions on crowd sizes may be reimposed as early as next week. In addition, officials mentioned the possibility of restoring the “green passport” confirming vaccination status and the purple standard regulating the number of customers inside a business.

“Infection is rising, and quite rapidly,” one health official said. “On the upside, there are still no signs of rise in hospitalizations, and even according to the cabinet’s decision, the number of hospitalized patients should be the leading figure in activating further restrictions.”

He said that should the rise in infections continue, further measures would be considered even without a rise in serious cases. “At the current rate, we’ll have 600 confirmed [cases] a day by next week,” the official said. “If it continues and the R number stays at 1.5, the Health Ministry will consider immediate measures.”

Experts and senior health officials believe, however, that the safety net provided by the coronavirus vaccine allows the government to avoid imposing new restrictions on the public. “Unlike the pre-vaccination period, the approach during the current outbreak is to first study the virus, and determine a policy only afterwards,” said one senior official, who is party to the ministry’s discussions.

On Sunday, Israel’s coronavirus cabinet met for the first time since the Bennett-Lapid government was sworn in amid the surge in cases. The ministers decided that, at this stage, there is no need to impose new restrictions. “Our goal at this stage is to provide maximum defense for the citizens of Israel against the spread of the delta strain, together with minimal disruption of everyday life,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said at the meeting.

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