Prime Minister Naftali Bennett admitted Tuesday that Israel's current COVID policy “is not going to prevent a significant rise in infections,” but is rather aimed at preventing a spike in serious cases.
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In a press briefing, Bennett compared the omicron wave to a storm, and vaccinations to a raincoat: “Those who didn't get vaccinated, we expect them to stay home as much as possible. Not forever, [but] those who aren't protected are risking themselves.”
Bennett said the current wave of the coronavirus, dominated by the highly infectious omicron variant, may be more severe than previous ones, “but will take a little less time.”
According to Bennett, the government's aim is to keep the economy open for as long as possible. However, he did not rule out another national lockdown.
International travel restrictions will be lifted, Bennett said, when less than five percent of new cases are in people returning from abroad. As of Tuesday, about 12 percent of new cases are imported.
Out of a total of 1,741 omicron cases confirmed in Israel by Tuesday evening, 1,004 of the carriers recently returned from abroad.
According to new quarantines guidelines that will go into effect on Wednesday, vaccinated individuals exposed to a confirmed coronavirus carrier must isolate until they obtain a negative result from a PCR test, regardless of which strain they come into contact with. The new rule applies to all Israelis aged 5 and over.
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In addition, those who have been exposed must avoid crowded places and contact with high-risk populations for the next 10 days, although it is unclear at this stage how Israel will enforce such measures.
Mass quarantines 'not effective'
Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz told Haaretz that “the reason we took the step of quarantining vaccinated people who were exposed to omicron was to slow the spread rate and because we knew less about the variant” during its initial spread.
“But now, at this stage, the variant is already spreading, and a policy of quarantining vaccinated people will lead to mass quarantines. We can’t contain that many quarantines, and it’s not effective either," he added.
Until now, vaccinated people who were exposed to COVID patients infected with the omicron strain were required to quarantine for 14 days. Bennett's move is seen as an easing of isolation requirements, part of a larger policy trend towards managing the pandemic with an emphasis on preventing serious COVID cases.
The idea of resuming the former quarantine policy was raised during meetings late last week, when it was clear that there was no stopping the spread of omicron in Israel – the fastest spread rate of any variant previously found in Israel.
Allowing for the new quarantine policy is the fact the omicron wave has yet to manifest in hospitals and COVID wards. But there are still three million unvaccinated people in Israel despite the government's efforts to convince them to get the jab.
“We may yet see a rise in hospitalizations, because it’s something we’re seeing in the world and one may assume that a rise in verified cases will lead to a rise in hospitalizations – it’s likely to happen because right now there are a lot of people who are unvaccinated," the Health Minister said.
"The main consideration was that this would allow us to live with the pandemic at the moment and run a country. We can’t paralyze the whole country and send all the workers to sit at home."
Prof. Hagai Levine, the chairman of Israel's Public Health Physicians Union, backed the approach, saying that "You can't go to a zero-risk policy and quarantine people." Noting that a wave of omicron-fueled cases is inevitable, he added that Israel must “let go of the delusion of controlling the pandemic."
Israel currently has 85 serious COVID cases, with 46 among them in critical condition, according to the Health Ministry. Of these, 38 are on ventilators. Just 6 percent of people with severe illness are vaccinated.
The R number, marking the average number of people that a coronavirus carrier infects, rose to 1.47 based on Health Ministry data from the last 10 days. On Sunday it had reached a three-month peak at 1.41.
The number has seen a steady rise over December. Two people have died over the last week, raising the death toll to 8, 242.